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Zoom Out by Sarah Z. Sleeper

I'm an award-winning journalist, short story writer and a debut novelist. My book, Gaijin, came out in August 2020 to glowing reviews and I'm hard at work on my next novel. I'm also a published poet and essayist, with work in A Year in InkThe Shanghai Literary Review and others. In the recent past I was editor-in-chief of the literary journal Mason's Road, and an editor at New Rivers Press.
Prior to receiving my MFA from Fairfield University in 2012, I had a 20-year career as a reporter, including three journalism awards and a fellowship from The National Press Foundation. These days, I'm completely focused on fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

Zoom Out 

8:30 a.m.

Her eyes squinted almost shut, she puckered her fuschia lips and then stuck out her tongue. Next, a view of the bottom of her chin, as she applied shadow and mascara above, her hands flashing in and out of view holding various wands and brushes. Her chin wiggled and she worked her mouth side to side as she applied the makeup. Suddenly her made-up face filled the screen again and she blinked many times. 

The employees on the Zoom call tried to alert her to the fact that her phone was projecting her face to everyone. They sent messages in the chat, Your feed is malfunctioning! Check your screen!, but she was oblivious. The woman had turned off her own Zoom video feed and placed herself on mute. Why her phone was projecting into the meeting was anyone’s guess, probably Siri showing everyone who’s really in charge of cell phones. Her bestie at work tried to call her cell, but it went straight to voicemail. The woman was clearly not following the work conversation, in which the boss had just asked for her input. Her mouth was moving rhythmically but no words came out.

10 a.m.

Boom! A group of young men burst onto the meeting screen, dancing wildly, hips thrusting and grinding. A hip-hop video blasted into everyone’s monitors and off to the side, the woman’s face up close, mouthing the words to the song. “You can’t stop me loving myself! Oh, oh, ooo, oh, oh, oh, oh!”

Awkward snickering from the others in the meeting. Still no recognition that her cell phone was projecting itself onto their screens. Unable to maintain decorum and focus, the boss ended the Zoom. Everyone clicked out of the meeting, but strangely, the woman’s cell phone images still played on all the monitors and it was now a full screen shot of everything she was doing. Across the country, from Los Angeles, to Dallas to Miami, employees sat riveted. Clearly no work would be done today.

1 p.m.

After the Kpop videos ended, she started shopping for underwear. Victoria’s Secret thongs, lacy bras from Saks, shapewear from Spanx. An almost naked, full-length photo of the woman jumped from one pair of panties to another, pink polka dots, tropical flowers, black satin, and matching padded bras. One employee messaged the others complimenting her figure, pleasantly narrow in the waist, with a curvy bottom, as was the fashion. Someone else threatened to turn over the compliment giver to HR for inappropriate conduct.

3 p.m.

Shopping time was over and she was on to social media, scrolling quickly through her Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok feeds. Photos of her and her friends, toasting with full glasses of champagne, a bevvy of scantily clad women with a rainbow of hair colors, and of her and her new Pomeranian puppy, Skippy, with a perfect white spot on his black nose, candids of her with cans of soup at the food bank. When she got to TikTok she stayed there for a while, watching dog rescues, dance tutorials, and surprisingly, cooking lessons. The people from the meeting collectively leaned in to their computers to learn how to make healthy eggs Benedict, learning that the trick is to trade heavy cream for skim milk. Looks delicious, one messaged.

4:30 p.m.

The woman’s face loomed large again, as she tried on a series of graphic face masks. Spiderman, wink emoji, blue and green plaid, red fake lips—she must have tried twenty before grabbing the purple one awash in white hearts. At the very bottom of the screen, her hand shoved the mask into a lilac wallet, apparently for her next venture out of her house, whenever that would be.

6 p.m.

By the time evening rolled around, the woman had moved on to YouTube, a series of ghost videos purporting to show sightings of spirits in abandoned buildings and hovering around cemeteries. At this point, most of the meeting members got bored and unplugged their computers. They’d discovered there was no way to make her cell phone projection go away aside from removing the power source from their own devices. They’d been calling and texting each other all day, trying to figure out how to turn off the feed, but it was as if all of their computers were wired together, or hypnotized, or possessed. Nothing but a dead battery or unplugged power cord could get rid of the woman’s cell phone feed.

9 p.m.

As bedtime approached, just three of the twenty still watched the feed. The woman was still on YouTube, now watching clips of drug overdoses and people shooting up heroin. She watched those terrible images—bodies in heaps on sidewalks, huddled inside makeshift tents, glazed eyes and unkempt hair. Should we be worried? one employee messaged, but no one replied. 

This sad spectacle went on for an hour or so and then poof! The woman’s cell feed disappeared. She’d either clicked off her phone, or plugged it in, or something, but whatever she did, the feed was gone and monitors were back to their normal home screens. For the three employees who watched until the end, it was both a disappointment and a relief. 

The next day, the boss called another Zoom meeting. The twenty employees were unusually quiet, holding their collective breath to see if the woman’s feed would take over their computers again. The woman attended, paid attention, and even talked when asked. No one mentioned to her that they’d spent the whole day with her, watched her try on underwear and so on. It seemed best not to bring it up. She would have been embarrassed and no one wanted that. The woman’s feed had proven to be a welcome, if fleeting, reprieve from the usual workaday routine of all-day Zooms and phone calls and emails. It was almost the end of that next day and as if they’d made a bargain with each other, none of the employees mentioned the strange incident or even sent messages in the chat, as if it hadn’t happened at all.

As the Zoom ended and everyone was about to get offline, a tinny digitized voice spoke through their monitors. “Mr. Fink, tomorrow’s Zoom will feature your favorite Internet hobbies, for employees’ viewing pleasure.” Everyone froze, fingers hovering over the X in the top corner of the screen. It was then that the boss sent an urgent email cancelling Zooms for the rest of the month, citing “schedule conflicts.” With a collective exhalation, the employees clicked on X.


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