Countdown to a New Year
by Katie Young Foster
In the bathtub, a woman reads a romance novel on her phone.
Two states away, a man watches the woman as she reads. The man, silent, sits in his kitchen eating a salad from Arby’s. His computer is open. On the screen: frequent flashes of green-painted toenails under water. The man reverses the camera angle on the woman’s phone. Now he stares at her face. The woman leans forward to turn on (he assumes) more hot water. The man grows excited by the woman’s eye color—hazel—and by the fact that she seems disgusted with him, which he likes. Or maybe she is disgusted by what she is reading. Or maybe she’s in pain. The man spots a half-moon of nipple before he closes the program. It is 8 AM.
The man who watched the woman in the tub is watched at work by a man named Rob. Rob evaluates the man’s proficiency with the company software. The software—with which the man is indeed proficient, Rob finds—measures the monetary damage of broken pipes in certain buildings for certain well-known companies. It is a matter, Rob understands, of assurance. Unfortunately, the man’s abilities outside of the realm of software wizardry—that is, the man’s ability to work efficiently in any kind of team setting at the office—is absent. Lacking. Going, going, and well past gone. Hoo-boy. Rob writes Less than ideal on his clipboard, under “Notes.” He heaves a great sigh. Now he must talk to the man about the teamwork facet of the man’s job performance face-to-face. The face-to-face follow-up, also known in this part of the office as the “Rob Talk” and/or the “Breakroom One-on-One” is part of Rob’s job. It is part of Rob’s workplace identity. Rob would prefer to send a follow-up email, but no one asked him! So, Rob escorts the man to the breakroom, which is empty. The man takes a seat. While Rob reads his report to the man out loud, the man drinks a cup of black coffee. When Rob draws breath, the man quietly vows to do better. Rob is relieved. He concludes his report, then exits the breakroom quickly, which gives the man the chance to fumble around on his phone and defuse any tension. Perhaps the man checks his email. Perhaps he sends a text message to his best friend, girlfriend, or wife. Rob is pleased. It’s his last One-on-One of the day.
Rob’s boss enters the bathroom and greets Rob, who occupies the middle urinal and wants to know what’s up. Rob’s boss mumbles something about the holidays, he’s not sure what, hyper-aware that his junk is on display, though when he zips up and looks over, Rob is already washing his hands. Rob’s boss wonders if Rob thought his dick size above average. Rob’s boss follows Rob into a meeting.
Over the lunch hour, the cleaning woman watches Rob’s boss’s office, waiting for her chance to enter. The woman’s official title is Sanitation Engineer, but no one calls her that, not even HR. Whenever Rob’s boss is gone, she eats the little candies she finds in his desk drawer. The candies—sour Skittles and, sometimes, Mike and Ikes—are accompanied by presents that, she fears, might be left especially for her. On Monday there was a little origami crane. On Tuesday, a Lego ninja warrior. On Wednesday—a condom. A condom? Maybe that wasn’t for her. Today there is a single blonde hair in the desk drawer, and a poem. The poem is also not for her, the cleaning woman is sure, but she likes the pattern of sounds the sonnet makes. Is it a sonnet? She looks up “sonnet” on Rob’s boss’s office computer. Yes, indeed—the poem is a sonnet. And sonnets hail from Italy, like Rob’s boss’s mom. Invigorated, the cleaning woman attempts to dissect Rob’s boss’s sonnet into parts like the internet tells her. She gives it up quickly. The proposition, the problem, and the question seem one and the same. The cleaning woman drops the single blonde hair onto the floor, then eats her lunch at Rob’s boss’s desk. The heady aroma of spices and meat fills the small, windowless office. She looks through insurance reports and through the week’s meetings listed on iCal. She looks at pictures of Rob’s boss’s blonde bimbo girlfriend, Micky. Then she throws her Styrofoam lunch container into the trash. She takes the trash can with her into the hall. Behind her, in Rob’s boss’s office, the smell of grocery store curry lingers: her little gift to him.
In the suburbs, the cleaning woman’s mother, Yulia, watches her daughter’s movements via an app on the desktop computer. The app pinpoints the cleaning woman’s location to one tenth of a mile. It marks her place in the world with a flag. Yulia thinks that the flag looks like a red sour cherry, and has told her cats, Kitchen and Moses, this fact several times over. She refreshes the computer every five minutes or so in order to see what that red sour cherry is up to. Sometimes the red sour cherry is at home, watching TV. Sometimes it is at or on its way to work in the city. Yulia writes down the other places the red sour cherry frequently visits: CVS, the gas station on 11th, an Indian restaurant called “Indian Restaurant” on 11th, the dog park on Deaf Smith Road. But most of the time, Yulia sees, the red sour cherry can be found dangling from an apartment complex on Mayberry Avenue. Yulia wonders about this. Maybe the red sour cherry is having a nice evening meal with friends? Maybe the Mayberry apartment has a yoga studio in the basement, and it offers stretching classes at all sorts of hours? Perhaps overnight? With a friend? OK, yes. Yulia knows too well what goes on there. After all, Yulia had her own special friend, Frank, who is dead now. And she had her own special life, her own kind of yoga and dog parks and Indian restaurants, back when her knees and her back and her ears were much younger. Does the red sour cherry think Yulia too set in her ways? OK, yes. During the week, it frequently sends emails with headings like, WHATS UP and Do you have toilet bowl cleaner? and MOM don’t let those high school students bully you into saying anything stupid. No mention of Mayberry Avenue. Nothing about New Year’s plans or coming to visit or new loves in its life. And Yulia, refreshing the screen, thinks, Who is she? Who is this red sour cherry that takes up all of—and none of—Yulia’s time? But, most importantly, who does the red sour cherry think Yulia is? Yulia is not so unreasonable, Yulia thinks. (It is easier to think of herself in third person, apart, as someone outside of her body, looking in, she finds.) Facts: Yulia has lived a long life! Yulia has seen a few things here and there and can listen and nod and lend an ear if anyone or anything tried to tell her a secret or three. Yulia’s no snitch. Yulia’s no prude. Yulia refreshes the computer, feeling down. It is Saturday. Tomorrow is Sunday. On Monday begins a new year. Yulia refreshes her computer again. The day is cold. The cold seeps under the door in the kitchen. Kitchen, the cat, is asleep on the rug. Yulia refreshes her computer. She waits for the satellite to lock onto her daughter, track her down, expose her, show her, shed some sort of light.
On Sunday a camera crew comprising seven students gathers in the lobby of their high school to prepare for their visit to Yulia, whom they will interview. While waiting for Mrs. Meyers, their Camera Club sponsor, they come up with questions to ask. On the drive they memorize their questions so that they might, as a group, sound smart in front of the camera. Yulia greets them on the porch, holding the door open wide. She is bent and wrinkled and wearing oven mitts; she reminds the students of a fairy tale hedgehog. After introductions —Hi Peter, Hi Elizabeth, Hi Chan, Hi Michael, Hi Smith, Hi Annise, Hi Reighlee—they settle Yulia on the couch and ask her about her cats while they check the quality of the lighting. Then with a glance around the room, each meeting the other’s eyes, they begin. How interesting, they say, that Yulia lived under Soviet rule. What was that like? How interesting, they say, that KGB informants spied on her family. What was that like? How interesting, they say, that Yulia’s father’s lover helped her and her brother leave the country with only the shoes on their feet and the clothes on their backs. How interesting that a Mormon taught Yulia English in the basement of a Baptist-turned-Methodist church in Milwaukee. And you speak English so well! they say. How interesting! What was that like? Yulia nods and answers their questions, and afterwards, she makes them a pot of green tea while they set up a screen in her living room, so they can all watch the interview footage together. Ready, set, action! they say. And, as the video plays—the lighting is, indeed, perfect—everyone looks, not at the Yulia on the screen, but at the Yulia in the room, who is watching the Yulia on screen, who is speaking slowly and with an accent but in near-perfect English about sitting on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, waiting for someone to show up and tell her and her brother where to go, and when, and what to do next. Both Yulias look amused, but the one in the room looks best.
The high school’s camera crew is composed of one wrestler, one baton twirler, two club volleyball players, and three students unaffiliated with athletics. The club volleyball players, a left hitter and a libero, spend Mondays through Fridays at practice, Saturdays at games, and Sundays with said camera crew to beef up their résumés for college. On Saturdays and during practice, the volleyball players’ coach films the girls serving, spiking, digging, and blocking at the net. She critiques their offense and their defense. After practice the coach takes the film with her and watches it on her laptop with her husband at a Best Western hotel. They critique the team obsessively, rewinding then watching in slow motion as the left hitter leaps like a deer to block a spike, as the server slaps her teammate’s ass, as the outside hitter collides with the libero when they both dive as one for a ball that’s clearly out of bounds. On screen the girls slide slowly, slowly across the gym floor. The coach groans. Oh. My. God. She and her husband rewind once again then compare notes. Look at her. Look at her. She’s too far up. Didn’t anticipate the line. Needed to close that gap there. Yes, yes, yes, baby, fuck, yes, there. Later they sip white wine. It is their anniversary, and they consider watching a movie or maybe heading downstairs. The hotel is serving complimentary drinks in the lobby. The coach slips on her shoes, then checks in with the kids’ babysitter via text message. The babysitter replies yes, yes, everything’s fine, the kiddos are asleep (!) and the coach responds with a smiley face. Downstairs, the lobby is emptying. A crowd is gathering in the parking lot to watch the fireworks across the lake, the desk manager says, which will start any minute now, seeing as it’s five ‘til midnight. The desk manager pours them two cups of beer. Then the coach and her husband slip outside, following the crowd, shivering, holding drinks, holding hands.
The coach’s babysitter sits next to the baby, who is asleep on the couch. The babysitter eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watches TV, but mostly she watches the baby smile and frown and smile again, from a dream. The baby’s lips are soft. There are dry patches on his cheeks. If he were her baby, the babysitter thinks, she’d draw a little beard on his chin with permanent marker. The TV announces midnight, and the babysitter looks up. Confetti rains down on hat-covered heads. Disco lights flash. Celebrities dance on the stage. The babysitter kisses the baby on the lips and imagines a beard. Happy New Year. She finishes her sandwich, then washes dishes, then goes through the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen, looking for anything interesting. Anything unusual. Incriminating. Anything something, anyway. The babysitter finds an empty shark-shaped salt shaker. She finds a kid’s tooth and a coupon for a free dental cleaning, which she sticks in her purse. In the living room, she covers the baby with a blanket. She decides to check on the coach’s fifteen-year-old daughter—step-daughter?—Abby, whose room is at the end of the hall. Quietly, the babysitter cracks open Abby’s door and peers inside. The room is half-dark; an orange night light glows in the corner. There is a poster of One Direction on the wall. Abby is a lump in the bed, snoring pointedly. The babysitter closes the door, feeling weird. Well, jeez, she had to check! She would have snuck out for New Year’s if she were fifteen. A babysitter at fifteen. Gah. The babysitter shakes her head and returns to the couch. She cradles the baby and picks up where she left off: watching milk dreams tumble across his face.
In her bedroom, Abby quietly opens her laptop and checks the nanny cam for the nineteen-billionth time. The screen shows the babysitter on the couch, head bent, watching Johnson drool. Again. What a waste of life. Abby had felt such a thrill earlier when setting up the cam, hoping, praying, to catch the babysitter doing something remotely scandalous. Like drinking from a hip flask or inviting her boyfriend over to have sex on the living room floor. Abby didn’t care what, she just wanted to watch it. And then report it to her parents. Say to them, See? I do not need this in my life, I am a woman grown, thanks, bye. Unfortunately, the most scandalous thing the babysitter had done was drop a piece of crust on Johnson’s face, then eat it. She closes the nanny cam window, then goes back to DMing Devon about her comic book idea. Devon seems kind of interested, but kind of not. He keeps writing “cool, cool” after each of her subplots. But Abby can’t help herself. It is way too early to sleep, and she has so many world-building ideas swirling around in the trapezoid of her mind, she tells him. Like, in the year 2082, Year of Our Robot Lord, a person has to wear black boxes over her body to avoid detection from government satellites. It’s like a big brother scenario, but worse. Any time a person wants to go outside, she has to send five or six robot decoys—also wearing black boxes—ahead of her so the government doesn’t know where she is going, and with whom, and to what party. While Abby waits for Devon’s reply, she checks the nanny cam. The babysitter has Johnson up on her shoulder and is patting his back. Abby watches them for a while before accepting that, okay, Devon is just not going to reply. He’s gone DM dark. Poof. No more “cool, cools” for her this night, it seems. Well. Well. Abby grabs her phone. She sends Devon a brief holiday text message—It’s a new effing year, baby!—then flips her phone the bird, snaps a pic of said bird, and sends that along, too. Abby tosses her phone under the pillow. She closes her laptop, closes her eyes, pulls the comforter over her face, and then sleeps.
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