Unplugged

She spent most of her workday in her home office. Her supervisor and coworkers met with her via online conference, and the company delivered office supplies to her door. She deposited checks, purchased groceries, and scheduled car maintenance with phone and computer apps. The latest movies streamed to her TV, and she paid bills online.

Then the power went out.

Jenna heard a distant crash, and stillness filled the room. Her computer monitor went black. The ceiling fan slowed; its soft whir diminishing. Silence replaced the clank of her neighbor’s air conditioner. The hum of the mini-fridge disappeared. On her desk, blackness replaced the time display on the digital clock.

She was powerless.

Her presentation was due at 6 p.m. Jenna checked her laptop. The charge indicator showed 100 percent. Even so, her home Wi-Fi network vanished, so she couldn’t access her company’s server. Jenna glanced at her smartphone, and the battery icon displayed 25 percent. It wouldn’t last much longer.

Too impatient to wait for the power to return, Jenna dictated a text message to her boss.

“Electricity’s out. Looking for a hotspot.”

“Must have that presentation today!” he wrote back.

“You’ll have it. Promise.”

Jenna opened the phone app that mapped local Wi-Fi connections. The closest pin mark pointed to a coffee shop in Rancho Del Lago on Mesa Drive. The Sunrise Coffee Café. She had never been there, but desperation motivated her to try it.

She disconnected the computer equipment from her laptop. For five years she worked from home as a telecommuter, and during that time, she never dismantled her home network. Working with the light provided by the morning sun, Jenna unplugged the cords for the backup drive, keyboard, mouse, DVD drive, hub, and monitor. She planned to take just the basics—notes, laptop, chargers, and USB drive. After stuffing these and a few more necessities into her old college backpack, Jenna headed to her car.

Jenna rarely left her house. Having no reason to leave home, she last ventured out about three weeks ago. Everything she needed sat at her fingertips. She spent most of her workday in her home office. Her supervisor and coworkers met with her via online conferences, and the company delivered office supplies to her door. She deposited checks, purchased groceries, and scheduled car maintenance with phone and computer apps. The latest movies streamed to her TV, and she paid bills online. Video chats kept her in touch with friends and family.

As she walked to her 2010 Corolla, Jenna noticed the quietness of the neighborhood. Without the noise of air conditioners and pool pumps, she could hear the sounds of nature in full force. The breeze rustled leaves on the trees. Blue jays screeched, and toads croaked. Cicadas buzzed. She plugged her phone charger into the car and entered the coffee shop’s address into her phone’s GPS.

She cursed the power company. Without electricity, her connected haven morphed into a lifeless shell. The few times the power did go out, she enjoyed the break from work. But today, the presentation deadline weighed on her mind.

While navigating her Corolla to the main highway, Jenna marveled at Ridgeview’s lack of activity. She encountered deserted streets and dark traffic signals. Unlit storefront signs and interior lights made the buildings look uninhabited.

The absence of human life unnerved her. Was it possible that all her neighbors had packed up and moved since she last left her house? While she drove, Jenna battled the sensation that she was alone. 

Stop it. She fussed at herself for being silly. The power outage was responsible for the inactivity.

As soon as the Corolla crossed the main highway into Rancho Del Lago, the world appeared normal again. Traffic lights worked. Cars and trucks whizzed past her. People hurried along the sidewalks and walked in and out of buildings. Jenna turned on Mesa Drive and saw the Sunrise Coffee Café. She pulled into the parking lot and fished her laptop out of the backpack, checking to make sure she could set up the Wi-Fi connection. It worked, so she headed inside, corralled a table, and opened her laptop.

“Good morning. Do you want coffee?”

Startled, Jenna peered up at the barista. The man’s eyebrows pulled downward. He radiated annoyance. Then she noticed she was still wearing her sleepwear—sweatpants and a grungy T-shirt. She doubted she had combed her hair. Her cheeks grew warm.

“Uh… yes. And a bagel, too.”

“What kind of coffee would you like?”

“Oh.” Jenna didn’t know. Determined to rid herself of this man so she could start on her work, she racked her brain for a coffee item. She muttered the first thought that popped into her mind.

“Um… a large latte.”

“And the bagel. Plain? Cream cheese?”

“Yes, and yes.”

“That’s six-fifty. I can collect your payment now.”

Jenna handed him a ten-dollar bill, refocused on her laptop screen, and tried to concentrate. The challenge was to block out the people nearby. Laughter drifted from across the room. Snippets of conversation floated over from the adjacent table. Doors opened and closed. A toddler cried, and its mother shushed it.

“Here’s your latte and bagel, miss.” The barista set them down next to her laptop. Jenna acknowledged the delivery and continued to work on her presentation. Soon she was able to ignore the activity in the coffee shop. Three hours passed, and she didn’t notice.

“Looks like you’re in overdrive here.” The same barista hovered over her table. “Do you want another coffee?” This time he smiled at her.

“Sure. And a bagel,” she answered. She pulled a ten-dollar bill out of her wallet again and handed it to him. Then she continued to type.

Two more hours passed. The barista stopped by Jenna’s table once more, and she ordered a third latte and bagel. Two hours later, Jenna finished the presentation. It required more time than she expected. The Wi-Fi at the coffee shop was slower than her home connection. She breathed deeply, uploaded the file to the company’s server, and texted her boss. Outside, the sun hung low in the sky and quiet enveloped the coffee shop. Jenna packed her equipment and started home. The electricity should be restored by now.

When she crossed the main highway back into Ridgeview, however, Jenna drove into complete darkness. The traffic lights were lifeless, and the buildings dark. As she steered down her street, her headlights were the only source of illumination. Not knowing what to do, she texted her boss.

“My power is still out.”

“Small plane crashed near your house this a.m. Hit the Ridgeview substation. Could be days before power’s back.”

Damn. “Should I work at the office?”

“No extra workstations. Sorry. Go back to your hotspot.”

Jenna sighed. Her earlier adrenaline rush was depleted and she was exhausted. With no technology, her home was useless—a shell. She couldn’t accomplish much here, so she changed her clothes and combed her hair. Then she grabbed the backpack with her laptop and drove to Carriso’s, a nearby pub on La Cresta Boulevard in Rancho Del Lago. Jenna knew the place. They had Wi-Fi. They also served cold beer and hot sandwiches.

Three cars were in the parking lot when Jenna pulled in. One person sat at the bar, so she snagged a stool near the end, and ordered a Reuben sandwich and a local IPA draft. Then she pulled out her phone to check email.

“Hi there.”

She stopped scrolling and observed the man who sat on the nearby stool. He looked familiar. Jenna had seen him before but didn’t think she knew him. She responded with a nod and directed her attention back to her phone.

“Needed something stronger than a latte and a bagel, huh? Did you finish your work today?”

Perplexed, Jenna turned and studied the man next to her.

“Do I know you?”

“We spent the day together, sort of. At the Sunrise Coffee Café. I’m Nick.”

Jenna remembered. She swiveled her stool toward him and smiled. “Ah. The barista. I’m Jenna.”

“Did you have a rough day?”

Jenna groaned. “My electricity went out. It might be out for a while.”

“From the plane crash? It was on the news.”

“Yeah. I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow without power. I’m a telecommuter. I work from home.”

“You can come back to the Sunrise. I work tomorrow. I’ll keep the coffee coming.”

“Thanks. I may do that.”

The bartender set Jenna’s sandwich in front of her. She picked up a potato chip, scrutinized it, then put it down. She faced Nick.

“Are you ordering something to eat?” she asked.

“I think so.” He checked out her plate. “That sandwich looks good.”

After Nick ordered, they sat in silence until his meal arrived. Jenna didn’t know what to say. She sipped her beer and picked at her food. Because she spent so much time by herself at home, she often felt awkward out in public. The art of small talk, now unfamiliar, caused her to stress.

“It’s hard to cope with a power outage,” Nick commented as he picked up his sandwich. “Even more difficult if you work from home, I bet.”

“It is.” Jenna sighed and sipped her draft. “My life revolves around the Internet. Since my company stays current on computer technology. I have to stay up-to-date so I’m on par with my coworkers. Especially the younger ones.”

“Gotta keep up with Generation Z.” He chuckled, then bit into a potato chip.

She grinned. “The technology spilled over into my personal life. It sucked me in.” She picked up her beer mug and sipped. “I can do almost anything with the touch of a button or keystroke. Convenient, but….”

“You feel lost without it,” he responded.

“I do. I didn’t realize how much I depend on my Internet connection. I never have to leave my house. Sometimes… no… most of the time, I don’t even want to leave my house.” The admission embarrassed her, and her face grew hot. Flustered, she bit into the sandwich.

“So, were you always a technology geek?” Nick probed, amused.

“Believe it or not, there was a time when I wasn’t completely plugged in. I drove to the office every day. I met friends and coworkers for drinks after work. I shopped at the mall, ate in restaurants, and I exercised at the fitness center. I even watched movies in theaters.”

“No way.” Nick guffawed—a big, hearty sound that originated from his belly. Jenna hadn’t heard someone laugh like that in a while. She liked it.

“Do you miss that unplugged life?” he asked.

“Maybe.”

His question made her pause. Did she miss face-to-face interaction? She had lived in virtual reality for years. Her life was productive, but sometimes loneliness crept into her sanctuary. Until now, she hadn’t realized the extent of her solitude.

“It wasn’t so bad.” She bit off a mouthful of her Reuben and chewed. “Actually, at times it was pretty great.”

Jenna realized life without extreme technological engagement was satisfying. Here, at the bar with Nick, she hadn’t once thought about her laptop or a Wi-Fi connection.

Nick twisted on his stool to face Jenna. He touched her shoulder. She eyed him with curiosity.

“My sister and her boyfriend will be at my house for dinner tomorrow night. I doubt you’ll have your electricity back by then. Would you like to join us?”

The invitation astonished Jenna and left her speechless and uncertain about her reply. While she welcomed dinner away from the isolation of her house, and the chance to see Nick again was appealing, did she have the courage to accept?

Nick resumed, unfazed by her unresponsiveness.

“After dinner, we play cards or a board game. It will be a technology-free night.” He winked and laughed, “But we won’t be totally unplugged. We all keep our phones nearby.”

She could do that. Even if her power returned, it was time for her to rejoin the living. Laptop forgotten, Jenna beamed and nodded.

“I’d love to.”

Check out “Unplugged.” Jenna rarely left her house. She last ventured out about three weeks ago. But her power went out, forcing her to expand her comfort zone to finish the presentation due today.

Written by Allorianna Matsourani
Copyright 2020


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