Choose your own office party adventure
You remember the books. Prep for your real-life fete by navigating through our treacherous fictional celebration.
Thu Nov 15 2007
As the final minutes tick by on another day's toil, you find yourself returning to the same familiar thoughts: Why do they even schedule work in December? Everyone is checked out, planning a vacation or a gift purchase or the next fight to pick with their mother. It would be only humane to cut everyone loose at Thanksgiving. At least tonight is the holiday party, and the company even splurged to book the swanky midtown speakeasy The Volstead. Not bad.
Arriving at the party locale, you can't possibly raise the first drops of employer-sponsored alcohol to your lips fast enough. However, as you belly up to the bar, you're hit with a quick, heart-skipping flashback to last year's humiliation. "Start slow," you'd warned yourself afterward. Easier said than done, you think. Now the barman is staring you down impatiently. What's your order?
A. Screw it. You go with a martini.
B. "An IPA," you mutter, hating yourself for it already.
The chilled potable goes down smoothly—maybe too smoothly. But you've hardly had the chance to enjoy the dry, salty interplay between gin and olive when Betsy, the bubbly "raffle chair," insinuates herself in your personal space. This was a ritual you'd conveniently forgotten. "Only $5 for three tickets and all the money goes to a good cause," she chirps. Getting you out of my hair?, you think to yourself.
Still, you know she'll hang there like a heavy storm cloud unless you accede to her demands or tell her—firmly—that you're not interested. "Can I sign you up?" she asks presumptuously.
A. You capitulate. Three tickets toward the cause, whatever it is.
B. You decide your fiver is best dispensed elsewhere—for instance, to tip the barman for your second martini.
The beer is overly tart, bitter. Why did I choose an IPA?, you wonder. I don't even like them. You need a bite of food to mask the astringent taste. Judging by the spring rolls and shumai that have been whizzing by, not to mention the ridiculous cheongsams the catering staff has donned, the company is going for some type of Asian theme this year. Whatever. You'll take a bit of anything that doesn't smell like Lemon Pledge.
Just as you start to grind your teeth, two servers rush toward you, one carrying a tray full of the ubiquitous chicken satay (with peanut sauce, natch) and the other wielding a cute basket of fortune cookies. Your beer's in one hand; you can't grab both.
A. You take a skewer. They're boring, but they hit the spot.
B. The fortune cookie appeals to your inner cheesiness. You nab one.
The chicken: dry. The peanut sauce: sickly sweet and currently seeping into your gray dress pants with greasy aggression. You find yourself regretting that bypassed martini with each new substance that passes through your lips. And if that's not enough, here comes Betsy charging across the room with her taunting coil of raffle tickets. "Where have you been hiding all night?" the cheery (and self-appointed) raffle chair asks.
"Dunno," you mumble, knowing you're already cornered. "So, should I sign you up for 3 or 100?" she asks, cackling lustily at her own joke. Still, you know she means business.
A. You take three tickets. Five dollars is a pittance not to incur the wrath of this woman.
B. "Actually, none," you say, then head outside quickly to clear your head.
Excitedly, you crackle the stale pastry out of its plastic and snap it in two. How it is that you can cynically mock horoscopes yet love fortune cookies? It speaks to your irresistible complexity as a person, you decide, crumbs dribbling out of your mouth. You unfurl the ribbon of text and read, "Jamie, your powers are greater than you know. If you're ready to accept your destiny, meet me near the chocolate fountain at 9pm."
What the…? How did it know your name? You look for the server who delivered the cookie, but she's long gone. You look at your watch. 8:55. It seems fishy, but damned intriguing. Or you could blow it off and join the karaoke area, where your respectable vocals and superior showmanship are an annual party highlight.
A. You investigate the cryptic message.
B. You march off to give your fans what they want.
"…3-2-8…" Betsy withholds the last number an extra beat, as always, to build maximum suspense. "Eight," she calls, giggling over excitement that hasn't erupted yet. People read their tickets again and again, like they might have come down with sudden dyslexia the first time through. Idiots. You stand nonchalantly in the corner. "6-1-2-3-2-8-8?" Betsy repeats, a little panicked now.
Hating yourself for getting sucked in by the hope, you reach for the crumpled stub in your back pocket. Bingo! Now, like an idiot, you read the numbers for a second time. They don't change. You walk to the front and accept the entirely respectable prize: a dinner for two at Morimoto. The night is looking up; then Betsy hits you with the sucker punch. "You know the tradition," she says. "Raffle winner has to start the karaoke or take three penalty shots." Who let her make these rules, anyway?
A. You motion for Betsy to give you the karaoke mike.
B. You sidle up to the bar. Alcohol seems more like medicine than punishment right now.
You sit at the bar, feeling vaguely antisocial but not too guilty about it. The past year has been kind of weird. You used to be a rising star at this company and lately it seems like you're barely hanging onto your job. Mostly, you blame the hotshot they transferred into your department from Dallas. Maggie. She's one of those kill-you-with-kindness types, where you can't tell they're throwing you under the bus until it's too late.
Feeling rueful and insecure and more than a little drunk, you're interrupted from your reverie by the hottie HR assistant you've been flirting with for the past month. "You look pathetic. You oughta come dance," the assistant says, coyly. Your head's swimming just enough to interpret this as an invitation for a hookup, but you're not sure. Plus, you've always prided yourself on not being the sloppy dirty dancer at the company party. What to do?
A. You roll the dice. One little dance can't hurt, right?
B. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. You order another martini.
Thankfully, the people left at the party at this point are either beyond the blackout point or busily pursuing hookups of their own, because this human-resources assistant is raw id on the dance floor. Excluding a few breaks for drinks and some perfunctory conversation, the two of you have been getting down for the better part of two hours. And as much as you're trying to avoid it, you're now on the verge of full-on grinding.
Perhaps sensing that the situation is reaching a critical moment, your crush fixes you with what can only be described as the most devastating fuck-me stare you've ever seen and asks, "My place?"
A. Blame the alcohol. Blame the minidrought you've been in. You say yes.
B. "Not a good idea," you blurt, then turn and scurry down a small stairway to the cellar.
Your hand fumbles vainly against the pretzel dish, which you've just spent the last 15 minutes emptying. Not that those few morsels did anything to stanch the tide of your drunkenness. You try to remember how many drinks you've had, but it's just a blurry sequence of liquors—brown, clear, mixed…
You pick your head up and see a ruddy man with thick shoulders sitting on the stool next to yours. It's the CEO. It's too late to try to hide your stupor, but, as you peer at him, his look doesn't seem judgmental. "These things are shit," he mutters, taking a gulp of Scotch. You nod dumbly. "You want me to show you a real party?" he asks, turning and giving you with a hard stare. You don't know if this is a good idea; you don't even know if you can stand. But the boss looks very intent. These are the scenarios they don't cover in orientation.
A. You shrug your shoulders, which is good enough for the big cheese. "Great," he barks. "I'll get my driver."
B. You sense this can't end well. "Ahhh jus' have an-n-n-ozzza mahhh-tini," you slur.
You're jolted from your trance by what feels like a damp pencil eraser poking at your forearm. It turns out to be the nose of an albino ferret that's been fitted like a pack mule with small hanging pouches full of Ecstasy tablets. You look over to find your CEO, topless, enjoying a massage from two androgynous-looking women painted head to toe with glittery zebra stripes. He is beaming and tickling them.
Sitting Indian-style, you haven't moved, or even blinked, for a good 20 minutes since your boss led you in and deposited you in a pile of throw pillows. Now he seems to notice you again and beckons you over. He holds out a small pill, robin's-egg blue. "This is distilled from a Laotian root or some shit," he says. "It's the purest high you'll ever feel. Take it and I'll show you where the real action is." Can you handle any more of this?
A. Though instant death strikes you as a real possibility, you can't resist temptation.
B. You've finally reached your limit. You politely decline.
Though you know that this must be some ridiculous hoax, why is your heart beating with such pistonlike intensity? It's 9 o' clock, and you actually watched the seconds tick down, like a genie was going to pop up at the end of it. You stare at the cascades of chocolate falling down the fountain and slathering a few forgotten banana pieces in the reservoir. 9:01. This is stupid, you think. The only person within ten feet is Carlos, the affable HR director, who hardly acknowledged you when you walked over.
You check the clock again—9:02—and make a move to leave, when Carlos stops you gently with his hand. He looks around, then whispers, "Are you the chosen one?" You stammer, and he asks again, slowly, "Were you summoned by the council?" Just as your eyes go wide, he throws his head back in a massive belly laugh. "I'm fucking with you, man. You know you can replace those fortune slips with a paper clip." He looks at you and laughs again. "Woooo, I get someone every year. C'mon, I'll buy you a shot."
Carlos leads you back to the HR crew and shoves a glass of tequila into your hand while reliving his triumph. "Don't sweat it. He does get someone every year," says a cute HR assistant, somewhat flirtatiously. After a few more shots (and retellings), the assistant senses your embarrassment and beckons you onto the dance floor. Will you put yourself out there twice in one night?
A. The assistant is sexy. You go for it.
B. The night has been unpredictable enough already. You opt instead for a moment of peace outside.
"With our Without You"—gets 'em every time. Someday you need to thank your mother for dragging you to all of her choir rehearsals years ago. There's no doubt you owned the room…and drew more than a few lustful glances. Unfortunately, many of them emanated from the CEO's inebriated (but attractive) spouse, who is making a beeline for you right now.
"Hot performance," your boss's squeeze leers. "Uh, thanks. I practice in the shower," you joke. "I'd like to see that," comes the immediate retort. Before you can get a word out, the spouse's voice is ringing softly in your ears: "Listen, Robbie and I have an arrangement…an understanding. And tonight I'd like to make an arrangement with you. Understand?" Suddenly, it's hard to tell if this is a come-on or a threat. Better decide quick.
A. You can't see any good coming of sleeping with your boss's life partner. You bolt.
B. What's the worst that happens? You get fired? You follow the spouse to a company limo waiting down the street.
Normally, you love office parties—free booze, colleagues making fools of themselves—but tonight's early stages have been inauspicious at best. Dragging hard on a cigarette, you wonder whether it's time to pull the plug. Then, as you crush your butt underfoot, you notice a skinny kid in a Starter jacket emerge from a beat-up Jetta and scurry toward a black-tinted Mercedes halfway down the block. He fumbles in his pocket then thrusts his hand in the passenger's window. Probably not trading baseball cards, you think. Soon the kid jogs back to his car and screeches away.
Intrigued, you step back deeper in the shadows and peer at the Benz. It's a chilly night and the wind occasionally careers down the midtown canyon with skin-whipping force. After ten minutes you're beginning to rethink your amateur stakeout, when the passenger's door opens and out steps your company's brusque, squat CEO, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Instinctively you turn to retreat, but then you realize it's not every day you catch your boss red-handed in a fireable offense. Your silence surely has a price. Are you the blackmailing type?
A. Hell, yes. Your eyes are already dancing with visions of early retirement.
B. Nah. You leave the scene, and make a mental note to flip your stock options pronto.
You hit the last step and collapse into a corner of what appears to be a small storage room. And it's definitely spinning a little. You take deep breaths and wait for the nausea to pass. As the details of your environment begin to take shape, you realize that you're surrounded by cases of top-shelf liquor. Jackpot! The company has been jerking you around for six months promising a phantom promotion, this party has been one bout of stress after another, but at least the firm can properly stock your bar as a holiday bonus. Unintentionally, sure, but who will ever know?
As you assemble your haul—two bottles of Laphroaig or three?—you make another curious discovery. Someone has left their BlackBerry perched on a stack of boxes at the foot of the stairs. You look at the address book, then the calendar. "Board of directors meeting"…"analysts' call"…"keynote at an investment conference"…holy shit, it belongs to the company's CEO, Mr. Fitzpatrick.
Without hesitation, you go straight to the recent e-mails. Pretty officious crap. Pictures? You open the first one and nearly drop the phone. It depicts two college-aged boys sixty-nining each other in a tub of molasses. The next shows Mr. Fitzpatrick pleasuring himself while a Pygmy woman simulated fellatio on a miniature of Michelangelo's David. And they only get weirder from there. Now you have a choice: The booze is an easy heist, but this, uh, intelligence on the big cheese is worth potentially so much more. It's your call.
A. You grab your boxes and look forward to drinking away any memory of what you've just seen.
B. You pocket the phone and rush out to find the boss. Once confronted, he'll have no choice but to give you anything you ask.
Shivering slightly in the cool night air, Mr. Fitzpatrick takes another anguished puff on his cigarette and looks you intently up and down. You counter with your best poker face, but there's no getting around the truth: This is your first blackmail attempt. You don't really know what you're doing. Finally, he lets out a soft grunt that seems to convey that he's comfortable with his assessment of you.
"I do have vices," he says, the confidence in his voice rising. "I bet that you have vices, too." He pauses a moment to let the words sink in and catches you in his gaze. "I can show you a world where you can pursue them freely," he continues. "I sense that you're looking for something more in life; I'm offering access to a place where you can find it." He looks away, then says more casually, "Of course you'll be rewarded for your discretion either way, but come with me and you'll join a whole new world. You'll only have this chance once." What do you do?
A. The crazy talk is worrisome. You inch away and decide that arriving home safely is reward enough at this point.
B. You figure it's improbable for a respected CEO to hack you to pieces in cold blood. So what the hell? You head off to his waiting car.
The boss's spouse is a bigger mess than you thought. What was supposed to be an ego-gratifying lay has turned into an awkward baby-sitting exercise full of drool-saturated kisses and the world's most nonsensical dirty talk (club me like a seal?). Enough is enough, you tell yourself, tossing the spouse aside in a drunken heap and stepping out into the brisk night.
You walk a few blocks up, just hoping to catch a cab home. Coming up on a deserted stoplight, you see a man sipping coffee, reading a Post on the corner. It's Carlos.
"Hey, man, what's u-"
Carlos interrupts, grabbing your arm and guiding you with him up the street. "That fortune cookie was no bullshit," he says.
"Listen, man, it's been a long night," you begin, but Carlos jerks your arm again and jabs a finger into your chest while he turns to face you.
"I'm not fucking around," he blurts. "I couldn't tell you anything at the party because I still needed to make some final observations, but you do have powers. Incredible powers that can bring harmony to this planet."
"Seriously, was the boss's squeeze stuffing acid in my mouth along with that sock? I'm outta here."
"Wait," Carlos stammers. "How did you know which fortune cookie to choose?"
"I dunno," you shrug. "I just grabbed one."
"But you chose exactly the cookie you were meant to have. I didn't pay the catering woman off or anything. How could she affect your choice anyway?"
"I don't understand," you say.
"You make perfect choices, man," Carlos blurts. "I didn't believe it either. But I've watched you. Somehow, you always avert disaster. You're tapped into some kind of deep rhythms of the earth. You can't make a wrong decision."
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"Listen," he says, dropping his voice to a whisper. "That company you work for is a front. You think they need 1,200 people to sell gift-of-the-month-club memberships? It's a cover. I can't tell you any more here. Come with me and I can explain everything."
"Oh, and I'll have to blindfold you," he adds.
Don't let your instincts fail you now.
A. Who knows why, but you tie Carlos's cloth over your eyes and let him guide you away.
B. You've reached your weirdness limit. You wish Carlos well and jump into a cab.
A second stairway leads up from the booze basement to a rear loading area. Straining a bit under the weight of two cases, you remind yourself that once you get to the street, there will be cabs and you'll be home free. "Hey, stranger," a voice intones darkly as you climb uneasily over the last step. You don't even need to turn around to place who it is. That would be Sam, an intern you fooled around with briefly over the summer. Things had ended somewhat abruptly, against Sam's wishes.
"Looks like you've got a perfect party for two," Sam says, running a hand through your hair and spinning around to face you. "Or maybe I'm wrong. I'm sure you could explain all this to HR tomorrow." Then the brat takes a camera-phone pic. "I see you have some Johnny Walker Blue, my favorite. You remember where I live, right?" What now?
A. You don't even think. You leave the cases and run…fast.
B. You figure that with enough booze, it won't be that bad. Hooking up with a crazy ex is better than unemployment.
Shaking your head, you scour the early-morning streets for cabs and look forward to falling peacefully into bed. At that moment a white van come barreling around the corner and screeches to a halt right beside you. The door opens and a pudgy man in full terrorist garb (all black, ski mask) jumps out and pulls you inside. You try tackling him as he turns to close the door, but a swift elbow to the temple sends you reeling into a corner. Soon the van is speeding up the street.
The man turns around and takes off his mask. It's Carlos, the company's head of HR. "Sorry to sock you, man," he apologizes.
"It's okay," you say, head throbbing. "Did I insult your sister or something? You were fucking with me earlier, at the party, now kidnapping?"
"I know it must seem strange," he laughs. "But everything I've done tonight was a test. The company you work for is a front. Behind the scenes we run an elite task force for the government. But we need people with great instincts. In what we do, if you don't make great decisions, you're dead."
"Listen, I can't say any more here," Carlos warns. "All I can say is that you're ready. You make perfect choices. You'd be a welcome member of the team. If you come with me to our headquarters, I can explain everything, or we can drop you at home an no one will say another word about it."
A. Carlos's flattery is irresistible. You stay in the van.
B. Your instincts tell you that exiting is the best move here.
A single ray of sunlight sneaks past the window blinds and falls across your eyes, rousing you from a heavy sleep. Your sense of disorientation is immediate and intense, and your eyeballs throb like someone is driving spears in just underneath them. Looking around for clues of your whereabouts, you spot a limp condom beside the bed. So at least you were safe.
As you make a move to stand, you notice that your underwear is wrapped precariously around your ankles, as though to deliberately bind them together. You shudder. The place is not familiar at all, and, assuming you were led here by another person, evidence of that person is completely absent. No photos, no diaries and definitely no loving note tied to a fresh rose.
You are gradually able to locate all your clothing (enough of it, anyway), and you conclude that a swift exit is the best. One problem: Your not-so-loving companion has apparently absconded with your wallet, which means your walk of shame will be exactly that. A walk.
Fighting off a vicious hangover, you sit at your desk the following day and find yourself wishing for a return of the previous weeks' deadening routine. You still can't sort out what happened last night, or what it means. Then, a thunderbolt. Just past 1pm, you receive an e-mail from the CEO summoning you to his office. Will they let me pack anything or escort me out immediately, you wonder.
"Close the door," the boss says. You sit down and try to read his expression. Pained? Disappointed? Embarrassed? You wish he would just say something. "I'll keep this short," he says. "I've had a conversation with our HR director this morning." Your heart sinks.
"I told them that a trusted employee," he draws these words out and looks at you intently, "of your caliber—capable of handling sensitive situations with tact and wisdom—should really be in a more senior position." He smiles thinly. "Congratulations," he says, extending his hand. "I know you'll be a vice president we can count on to keep the company's best interests at heart."
"Yes, sir," you answer.
Work is sailing along today. This end-of-year busywork can be sort of enjoyable if you have the right music going (no one has to know that yours is X-tina). Feeling good that you didn't go overboard at last night's party, you contemplate treating yourself to dinner and a movie later. Then, out of nowhere, Todd rushes toward your desk.
Todd's visits have only one purpose: gossip. He's plugged into the gay intern network and seems to know things almost before they happen. "Jesus, where were you last night?" he asks breathlessly.
"Wasn't feeling it. Went home early," you say nonchalantly. "Did I miss some craziness? Someone make out with a marketing intern?"
"You missed friggin' Armageddon, buster," Todd gushes. "This was the office party to end all office parties."
"You know office manager Joe—married with five kids Joe?" Todd continues. "They caught him in a storage room hooking that little intern 'ho Jason. The poor guy burst into tears and came out on the spot."
"Damn," you say.
"But that's not the half of it," Todd goes on. "In the middle of the speech about the charity drive, these two massive—I mean massive—Italian guys barged in. There was some bouncer at the door and they just brushed him aside like dust lint. So these guys didn't say a word, just walked in a grabbed Mike, the COO, and marched him straight out. The whole thing took two minutes."
"You're kidding," you begin, but Todd isn't done.
"No one knows what it means. And that isn't even the craziest part. You know that little wiry guy Ron who stocks the vending machines? He was drunk—no surprise!—and got into an argument with the barman about how much change the guy gave him. We're talking about a dispute over $10. But they kept arguing and suddenly it got real personal. Before anyone knows, Ron takes a champagne bottle and cracks it over the guy's face. His eye socket shattered and they're saying it might have severed the optic nerve. I hear Ron might get attempted murder, and of course our lawyers are scared shitless the company can get sued, since it was a sanctioned event."
"I can't believe it," you protest. "I love crazy shit at office parties. I wait all year for it."
"Sucks for you," shrugs Todd.
Sitting in the middle of a long banquet table, you try to make sense of the life-altering presentation you've just been given. In the mid-1970s, a group of radical Skinner disciples infiltrated all the power structures in the U.S. and remade it into a sort of Brave New World society, using mind control to maximize collective happiness.
Except the whole concept hinges on a cadre of expert deciders, or "choosers," who seem to know what each person should do in any important situation. The powers are not well understood, scientifically, but seem to be innate. And you have them. In fact, though your progress needs to be monitored further, there are early indications that you may fall into a rare category of "superchoosers" who are assigned VIP members of society like civic leaders, celebrities and game show contestants.
Having immediately grasped the importance of your talents, you happily signed the contract renouncing your previous identity. You will now be lavishly cared for, and in exchange you'll bring unspeakable happiness to millions of fellow citizens through your choosing acumen.