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Zooming Right Along
By Kay Smith-Blum
I note the time through a cascade of hair I’m blowing dry upside down. I only wash my hair on Zoom days, an effective ploy. The more hair to muss with, fluff, shake out, the less noticeable turkey neck is, don’t you think? I negated mascara in week three of stay-at-home-or-else days, deciding my long-distance glasses with dark metal rims give my eyes all the definition they need. Folks I used to put a face on for have gone missing these days. A text skitters across my cell phone screen. Miranda is asking if there is a number she can call. I raise halfway up and text back saying how easy it is to just download Zoom to her laptop.
My best gal pals, pulled in a “Sex-in-the-City”-way from all walks of my life, proved their viability as a stalwart pal in one of three ways: a) being a client who actually listened to me when it came to fashion choices, b) volunteering to partner in school fundraisers before being asked or c) showing an ability to juggle aging parents, #metoo scenarios and dysfunctional family members while climbing career ladders. Our birthdays sprinkle the winter, spring and summer months, giving us reason to gather.
My last dinner out was Rita’s birthday celebration in mid-March, along with Mo, the three of us ignorantly defiant of the early-on virus warnings. We all hugged goodbye—nightmare fodder—unconscious of the dangers lurking on our sleeves. Dust particles are mostly animal dander and insect waste and you know the whole bat/cat connection, right?
My cell flashes. Miranda responds that she doesn’t have a camera on her computer.
I straighten, flipping my hair back from my face in disbelief. Miranda sits on three—count ‘em—three—global charity boards. All those trips, in the past-normal, to New York and Israel, negated the free time necessary for a laptop upgrade – or was that how she justified all the in-person-attendance trips – no camera? Neither sounds right.
I type, “just use your phone.” I set mine down again and study myself in the mirror pleased with my sumptuous hair, an illusion fabricated by heat force.
I rub cream into my continental-divide-like split cuticles, beseech the Great Spirit to open nail salons again soon and slather the rest of the lotion on my throat. Someone just sent me the Gloria Swanson “Sunset Boulevard” GIF. You remember how she wafts down the stairs, arches her back and lifts her head, her raised chin negating any possibility of turkey neck? Genius. She would have rocked these video chats.
I puzzle over why Zoom doesn’t have film filter choices yet. More women are likely needed in their development offices. A little softening around the edges would be far better than those ocean wave backgrounds you can opt for if you have Chrome that make one look like a paper doll cutout and require a Dramamine. I tilt my cell phone. Eight minutes. I dab concealer under my eyes and cover it with Olay’s revitalizing cream and apply lipstick. I’m ready for my close-up.
Miranda pings again. “So, I can just call, right?” I sigh and resend the Zoom link to Miranda and then text Rita, who used her phone when we tested Zoom the day before, saying to please call the tech-challenged Miranda. Rita, an attorney, possesses a patience level I do not.
I organize a water glass, a scotch on the rocks, Ruffles Baked Chips and raw almonds onto a white-linen-draped silver tray in a Claridge's fantasy and nestle into the couch. Elliott Bay glistens before me. Ferries come and go to Bainbridge Island. Seagulls dive at large sprays of saltwater spewing from a fire boat testing its hoses. Lucky-if-isolated-here-Girl is my new hash tag on Instagram. Three minutes.
Miranda pings again. “There are eight phone numbers but I don’t see yours.”
Wait, does she think that Zoom would use my personal cell phone number to propel signals across the globe?
She pings again. “I mean, which one of these numbers is for your meeting?”
Phew. Assured that Miranda’s cognitive skills intact, I thumb, “Rita is calling you.”
I power up my lap top and open my browser. The Zoom screen is covered with confusing cartoon icons I’ve learned to ignore. The white entry bubble pops up and I click ‘Join with Computer Audio’ and fluff my hair. Showtime!
Thirty seconds later, Rita’s name appears in the Admit pop-up. I choose “admit.” She’s in front of her easterly window, Lake Washington her non-virtual background. a wide mustard-colored headband holds back her not-so-short-anymore red hair giving her a ’50s film star aura. The Swanson-aka-Norma-Desmond GIF is making the rounds. But nothing tops the gal in the closet—have you seen it?—her face aglow in a flashlight, whispering to her shut-in audience: “I wanted a man in my life, just not in my house…we’ve been married thirty-one years and yesterday he asked me where I keep the spoons. The spoons…”
Rita’s got her cell phone at her ear. “See the phone number that begins with 2-5-3?” I wink and grab the hand sanitizer on the coffee table. Small spray bottles dot our condo like an unfinished Easter egg hunt. I rub and pop an almond.
Rita addresses her phone. “Call that one.”
“Love the headband.” I raise my scotch glass into my box. We are both Dewars girls. According to Nielsen Research, alcohol consumption rose 55 percent for the week ending March 21, 2020 compared to the same week last year. We’re team players.
“It’s covering up my red spots.” Rita cocks her head back to her cell. “It’ll ask you for the meeting ID and then for the pass code.” Mo’s name bubbles up for permission to join.
I cursor her in and study Rita. “Red spots?”
Mo, short for Maureen, is rustling around, her head darting across the screen, her kitchen blurs behind her. The bubble reappears at the bottom of the Zoom window. I click Eileen in. Mo comes to a halt, full frontal and takes in Rita’s image.
“You know I had my whole body done,” Mo resumes her flurry of activity. How many steps could possibly be involved in a vodka-rocks?
Eileen waves from her box. I wave back and look at Rita, “What are you people talking about?”
Rita nods into her cell phone. “Ok. I’m hanging up now.” She draws a finger across her forehead. “You know…”
Mo’s cell phone ring disrupts Rita’s response. Mo answers and moves off screen but not out of earshot. Eileen and I purse our lips, the oft-synchronized group disciplinarians.
Rita taps her headband. “Those little red spots you have from too much sunbathing when you were young.” Mo talks loudly into her phone, drowning Rita out again.
“Mo,” I say. “Maureen Allegra!” She doesn’t respond. My fault. I should have told everyone to use ear plugs. Mo probably has her bad ear turned to her laptop, her good ear occupied by her call to which we are now all privy. Her Palm Desert house has been rented. I realize too late I could have muted her.
Mo comes back into view. “It’s a Covid miracle. I rented my house for June and July.”
“We heard.” I raise my glass to the unnamed lessee’s stupidity. Renting a place during the months of non-stop 110-plus degree days in an area where almost the entire population is at high risk for the virus tops some lack-of-intelligence chart somewhere. Miranda’s name pops up in the admin window then disappears.
Rita raises her glass. “Mazel tov.”
Where the heck is Lizbeth? Probably work. Lizbeth develops real estate. In the wake of the virus, she’s become a fire marshal. The pop-up window has Miranda’s name again. I admit her. Miranda’s cell phone number appears in a black box but no Miranda. Bad hair day?
Mo details the procedure Rita is undertaking in the soothing tutorial tones of a former teacher. A veteran grammar specialist, she never uses the wrong pronoun, oddly reassuring.
“My doctor told me that most folks don’t finish when they say they want their whole body done.” Mo sips her vodka and wags her head. “It’s usually too painful.”
I shudder. While Mo goes on about her high pain threshold, I shake my hair out, pleased with the diminished view of my neck. No one comments. Eileen smiles benevolently from her perch in front of the Tetons, but says nothing, no stranger to self-incrimination. She and Chuck decamped to Wyoming right after Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, escaping a passel of grown children and grandchildren. She learned early on, being an even cooler stepmom than Julia Roberts, that no-comment is the best way to sidestep the constant quagmire of misunderstandings in blended families.
Mo continues. “Anyway, it just wasn’t that uncomfortable for me.”
Rita taps her head. “Ouch is all I can say.”
The green highlight shifts to the black void with Miranda’s cell number. “Ok I’m here.”
Eileen lifts her wine glass with a Mona Lisa smile. “Here’s to you gals.” Glasses lift into screen boxes in unison. “Where’s Lizbeth?” As if summoned, Lizbeth’s request to enter the meeting pops up. I click her in, 15 minutes late I might add.
Lizbeth stares intently at the screen, her forehead furrowed. She’s in a basement office with her husband’s piano keyboard stage right. I cup my ear.
“Can you hear us?” Lizbeth shakes her head at me. I hold up my cell signaling I will call.
Eileen’s benevolent smile returns, her patience a result of lifelong yoga practice. Rita takes another sip of scotch. I realize I’ve forgotten the twist in mine.
I punch in Lizbeth’s number and view the snowy tops of the avalanche-prone mountains out Eileen’s sliding glass door. So many ways to go. Mo has her back to the screen again. I power off the couch, laptop in one palm, cell in the other, in search of a lemon while my call connects.
Lizbeth answers. I assume my Zoom professional development voice. “Look at your Zoom window, lower left. See the microphone icon?” Lizbeth nods via Zoom and says, “Yes,” into my cell. I set my laptop on the kitchen bar, dab sanitizer and rub before snagging a lemon from the fruit tray. I skin and talk.
“Is there a red slash through it?” Lizbeth wags her head no. “OK,” I say with great calm. “What about your computer? Is the sound turned on?” I move back to the couch and run the rim of my scotch before drowning the twist inside.
Lizbeth switches her phone to speaker. “Yep.” She hollers for Jim, her husband, to come trouble shoot. The volume reverberates and Eileen’s smile thins. For sure, I should have made earplugs a thing but I hate them.
Rita addresses Mo. “How long did it take. Your whole body?” Jim wanders into Lizbeth’s box and fiddles with something on the computer then moves to the keyboard.
“About six months.” Mo says in her outdoor voice, still not conscious of her volume level. Eileen brings her wine glass to re-pursed lips. I raise my hand signaling lower. Mo doesn’t take the direction. “But here’s the thing.” She shouts. “If you go out in the sun again, without protection, it goes away.”
I mull over the practicality of the expense since Mo is out in the sun all winter in Palm Desert. Eileen takes a drink, politely waiting for her turn in an-every-woman-for-herself scenario.
I clap my hands to get the class’s attention. “I want to make it perfectly clear that this gathering in no way absolves you all from buying me dinner out when this whole thing is over.”
Rita nods raising her glass. “Happy Birthday.” Mo turns her back to power more ice cubes out of her ice dispenser. Miranda’s cell phone box remains silent. Eileen murmurs something unintelligible. I take a large swig of scotch.
Jim puts headphones on Lizbeth and moves a cord from his keyboard connecting it somewhere out of our vision. Eileen twists in her chair, lifting her laptop to show us the creek behind their house.
“It’s close to cresting,” I say.
“No worries. We have our canoe.” Eileen smiles. I conjure an image of her paddling through the ranch house. Sheer folly that she furnished the cabin with antique oriental rugs.
Lizbeth squints her eyes as if she can’t see us, straining to hear us through the earphones. I put my cell on top of a pillow close to me.
“Lizbeth, can you still not hear us through Zoom?”
Eileen takes another swig of wine. Miranda’s box falls off the screen. Lizbeth wags her head in the negative. I pick up my cell and punch it off speaker.
“Ok, just talk to me and I’ll repeat.”
Rita takes another sip of scotch. “Ask Lizbeth what Jim said.”
I engage Lizbeth via cell and report back. “The audio for the computer is connected through his keyboard, for, you know, his songwriting.” Jim is a composer. “The hookup is messed up.” Lizbeth scrunches her face, fiddling with something in front of her. Miranda’s cell phone number pops up back up in the bubble.
I click her in for the third time, hoping the charm rules apply to Zoom.
“What a pain.” Miranda’s voice-without-her-body says. “I keep losing my connection every time I move to another room.” I bite my tongue, denying the inclination to ground her. We are halfway through the allotted meeting time and the only thing I’ve learned is for sure I’m not having whatever it is that Rita and Mo have had.
“Yes, that will happen every time.” Eileen, the Catholic in the group, knows how to guilt without bite. Jim taps Lizbeth’s shoulder and points. Lizbeth smiles and then frowns. No go. Rita leans back, pressing at her headband. The green around Miranda’s cell phone box lights up. We can all hear her husband asking what she’s making for dinner. I move my cursor to the mute position in her box. The talking ceases and I bask in my omnipotence.
Rita asks, “Eileen, what’s the weather like. Temperature-wise?” It’s puzzler why Rita, who doesn’t ski or hike, is interested in Wyoming weather. But then again, this entire situation is a puzzler. It’s as if we have all lost our ability to converse at a meaningful level, reduced to only the most basic Q & A’s.
A freighter moves across the bay in front of me stacked with containers. I pray for toilet paper. Eileen turns around, centering herself back in her box.
“You know, chilly mornings and around freezing at night. We’ve been hiking most afternoons.” Chuck passes through her study, a furry creature in tow.
We all sit up in our windows. Rita asks the obvious. “Hang on. Who’s that?”
Eileen and Chuck are the quintessential large dog owners. A parade of much-beloved wolfhounds, German shepherds and greyhounds, some well-bred, others rescued, dotted their lives even before they found each other. Chuck stops stage left above Eileen’s shoulder. An adorable German shepherd puppy heels to her right.
“This is Bailey.” Eileen’s eyes water as she reaches down to pat the puppy. They have been dog-less for two years since Rico’s death, a tough passage. “The breeder, the guy we got Rico from, emailed and said he was driving through to deliver a German bitch”—that term always catches me off guard, you?——“and asked to stop by.”
Lizbeth, of German heritage, frowns. I swing my cursor toward the black box to unmute Miranda. In Eileen’s box, the puppy locks his teeth onto something beige.
I pick up my cell. “Could you hear? She’s not talking the breeder, not you.”
Lizbeth nods via Zoom, confused by dual options for communicating. Bailey turns his head to the camera. Eileen’s cashmere slipper drips with his saliva.
Eileen swipes a tear off her cheek. “Turns out, the breeder had Bailey along for the ride.” Chuck, stage left, takes a whack at trying to retrieve the slipper. No luck. Bailey tail-wags out of the green box. Chuck exits the stage after him. My husband photobombs a wave to everyone as he dashes for the fridge in a quick break from his online poker tournament.
Miranda’s cell number pipes up. “You know the kids are thinking…” A crash. Her black box disappears from Gallery View.
Eileen disregards Miranda’s exit. “We decided it was time.” Her joy is exemplary of why all the pet shelters are empty. Everyone gets teary. We all drink. Eileen announces it’s an hour later her time and Chuck has dinner ready. I say we’ll get our act together before next time. Lizbeth says into my cell that she needs to find her own laptop. I give her a thumbs-up via Zoom, translate for the group and disconnect our cell phone call.
Rita pats her headband, saying she needs to check on her chicken in the oven. Mo says in her outdoor voice she has nothing to do except wait for her takeout delivery. I suggest the Tara French novel I’m reading. Eileen offers up an NPR podcast title. Lizbeth strains her neck, squinting between the headphones. Miranda is lost to the void. The rest of us raise our glasses once more and I sign a knife across my neck so Lizbeth knows I’m ending the meeting. She waves. Mo shouts goodbye. Rita says happy birthday again. Eileen smiles.
I click Apple quit and stare out at Elliott Bay. The freighter is anchored out from the docks, forced to wait its turn. The world is one long socially-distanced line. Clouds top the West Seattle peninsula like cake icing, garnering the beginning pinks of a sunset. My phone screen flashes. The Kentucky Derby has been postponed but a turtle race has popped up online as an upcoming replacement activity. SeattleSlow is the odds-on favorite to win.
I click my phone camera into the selfie mode and study my well-camouflaged neck. How did we become doomed to Zoom, rather than looking the real world in the face? A seagull drifts within a few feet of my window, looks me in the eye and nods. He likes my hair! He back-tilts, letting the wind draw him away. His wad lands on my window.
Must have mistaken me for a turkey.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.