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  • Samantha Der

The Woman in the Tower Above

Athena Yu hit “end meeting” and booted everyone out of her video conference call. She pushed back on her desk, grimaced and made herself a gin and tonic. She walked to the panoramic windows of her living room and looked down at the city streets dotted with tiny, moving cars and specks of people, scattered on the sidewalk like ants. New York City, for all its grit and hard-bitten glory, was soundless and serene—picture perfect from 42 floors above. In the distance, the sun was beginning to sink into pillows of dramatic red and gold colored clouds that graced the sky over Central Park. But the view did little to uplift her. The growing wrinkles around her eyes were accentuated by a scowl. Athena was livid.

Three months ago, Athena was hired to work as interim finance director at Greystrom Financial, an old school institution trying to pivot to survive fast-changing times. All employees were working from home. She had actually never met anyone in person, not even the senior vice president, Art Crandell, her boss. The isolation was beginning to wear on her, but Athena still felt privileged to be able to perform her executive duties from the comfort of her high rise apartment at Tesseract Towers on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Athena was focused on a confidential project between Greystrom and Lokia 4D Visual, the company that would provide the technology for their newest client service initiative. The strategic decision to acquire Lokia 4D was the kind of move needed to keep the behemoth viable in a world being quickly dominated by clever, nimble FinTechs. Transitions are often complicated, though; and sometimes, things can get personal.

Athena took another sip of her drink, turned and sat on her couch. She replayed the video conference meeting she had just conducted in her mind. The meeting had included a number of in-house department managers as well as a finance lead from the mixed and augmented reality company, Lokia 4D. Things had gone smoothly until near the end.

“And for assessments for the AR Human Touch project, I’ll look forward to the updated financials from Lara and her team,” Athena had said.

“Those have already been submitted,” remarked Lara Cho, the financial manager from Lokia 4D.

“You sent them to me?” questioned Athena.

“I sent them to Art Crandell,” said Lara.

For a split second, Athena made eye contact with Lara who appeared to stare back defiantly from the tiny box on Athena’s computer screen.

“We’ll speak offline,” said Athena who turned the floor over to a financial manager who provided other updates and strategic recommendations. Athena’s unfazed reaction belied how angry she actually was about Lara going over her head. She knew better than to confront Lara in front of the other department heads in a meeting she was leading though. Instead, she was a master creator of an on-camera image of reticence and restraint.

Athena was aware that being home alone a lot seemed to amplify her tendency to overthink things, but she allowed her feelings to fester for a bit. Athena had heard Lara and Art had both worked together years ago at the blue-chip firm, Loughty Associates. Their history together made her feel at risk. She wondered if Lara was after her job. Athena was “interim” director after all; her position was not yet official. She thought about how she—an Asian woman from hard scrabble roots in Indiana—had worked her butt off to get where she was now. All her life she had to prove herself to gain acceptance, to gain access. Her laid back ex-husband, Burt Nelson, could never understand.

Athena finished her drink and crushed a chunk of ice between her teeth. She was a survivor. At 48 years old, she had come this far. She would not be sabotaged. Who did this Asian American woman, Lara Cho—this 36-year-old, New York transplant from Georgia—think she was?

“Doo, do, doo. Doo, do, doo.” The hollow, electronic organ chime of her Ring doorbell jolted her out of her fixation on Lara. Athena got up, checked her phone and opened the door. Her IoT refrigerator had assessed supplies and ordered a timely delivery of gourmet groceries. As she brought the expertly packaged bags inside, Athena thought of Art Crandell. In the interview, he had also asked how she embraced technology in her own life. Athena had impressed him with her tech infused, on-demand lifestyle where a virtual stylist sent her tailor-made outfits in beautiful, pink and gray boxes; and at the touch of her fingertips, housekeeping was scheduled; organic meal plans were ordered; even salads and oysters on half shell from Mastro’s arrived at her door like room service. Art thought she was perfect for Greystrom’s groundbreaking project.

After Athena had received the official offer letter for the position by email, she also received a personal note from the senior vice president. It included the expected niceties but also included a cryptic line: “The cleanliness and efficiency of technology shall never overcome the necessary messiness of human emotion.” Athena didn’t know what to make of the out of place comment. But this was a great career opportunity, so she wasn’t going to question or mess with it.

As Athena got comfortable in her “interim” role at Greystrom, her relationship with 42-year-old Art Crandell remained professional, but the distracting, mysterious messages continued. “Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, But to see who cares enough to break them down,” he texted her one evening. Socrates? We’re working on a crucial business initiative and he’s waxing poetic? Was this a warning of some kind or a pick up line? Athena wondered what his wife would think of his off-kilter texting. As the drone of work-from-home life wore on, however, Athena began to look forward to Art’s crafty messages. One that she found particularly perplexing was: “The gift of tech protects, yet it covers a multitude of sins.” As she lay alone in bed at night with her phone, she thought of his provocative texts. She certainly was intrigued by this man.

Athena had finished putting away the groceries her smart fridge had ordered. She chose the Big Sur scenic ride video to play on her Peloton exercise bike and jumped on. As she peddled, she thought about how to handle Lara’s behind-her-back antics. The flutter of the Tudo text tone interrupted her private, angry thoughts. Athena got off her bike and hurried to her phone. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the message was from Art. Athena sometimes wondered if Art was taller or shorter than he appeared in video calls. She wondered if his eyes were as blue in real life as they looked like on screen. Her hands grew sweaty as she swiped her fingertips across the polished glass to reveal his message.

What Athena saw was a group text. Art had sent a message to both Athena and Lara.

“FYI Plans for all employees to return to the office still remains as scheduled for this coming Monday. I’m looking forward to seeing both of you in person!”

“That’s right, you’ve never met Athena in person yet,” texted Lara. “Lol. Athena, you should lower your expectations. Art’s been using a beauty filter on those Teams calls.”

“Haha,” texted Art. “Well, I may not make it in 'cause my car’s still in the shop. May have to hitch a ride with someone,” he added.

“I cannot believe you still have that Audi S8!” teased Lara. “She always gives you trouble.”

Athena was speechless. She felt like a third wheel, unreasonably betrayed; she couldn’t think straight. But she couldn’t let on. She was thankful she was in the privacy of her home where no one could see her anguished face behind her phone screen. Athena pulled herself together and texted, “Looking forward to finally meeting you both in person!”

The group text conversation had ended. Athena paced in the kitchen, aimlessly opened her refrigerator and mumbled something to herself. She knew she was too much in her head. Living alone does that to you sometimes. Then she got another text. It was from Lara.

“Hi Athena. It’s Lara. I think I actually live pretty close to you. Same neighborhood. Weather and fresh air is great today. I’m sitting at the Coffee Belle Amie, nice outdoor seating. Do you want to meet me to talk?”

Athena was surprised. She looked outside her window. A cloud obscured her view of the ground below. Athena definitely wanted to get to the bottom of things. An opportunity to clear the air. She was also mindful of how important the rollout was to Greystrom and to her career. “Sure,” she replied. “I’ll be down in a few.”

When Athena arrived at the coffee shop, Lara was sitting at a sidewalk table. An Asian American couple stood on the sidewalk chatting with her. Athena immediately felt annoyed. She put her purse down on a chair and looked around uncomfortably.

“We’re starting to congregate,” Athena muttered under her breath.

The Asian American couple said something to Lara. Lara smiled and her friends walked away.

“Hi, Athena,” Lara said. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” remarked Athena who pulled out a chair. “Asians are so clannish.” She straightened her skirt, sat down and asked the waiter for a menu.

Lara shook her head and stared at Athena. “So you must be really happy about getting to see Art in the flesh. He talks about you all the time.”

“He talks about me?” said Athena trying to conceal her excitement.

“Oh yeah. He thinks you’re doing a great job with the AR project.”

“Great. Good to hear.” Athena eyed Lara suspiciously. She tried not to sound threatened. “You two go way back?”

“Art and I? Oh, my gosh. We’ve known each other for over ten years!”

Athena signaled to the waiter and put her order in. She turned to Lara and tried to sound casual. “You two were an item, huh?” Athena tried to force a little laugh, as if she were joking, not accusing.

“Oh, no, no, no!” laughed Lara. “He’s not my type.”

“Why? He’s a good looking guy. That strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. C’mon. Who can resist?” smiled Athena coyly.

Lara studied Athena’s face. “You’re very savvy with insights, trends and financial forecasts. But in other ways, you’re so old school.”

“Pardon me?”

“First of all. Art is married and has been married ever since I’ve known him.”

“That never stopped anyone,” Athena laughed out loud. “I’m just kidding,” she quickly added. Athena knew she had run off a cliff with that comment but she couldn’t stop herself.

“Not every Asian girl is all about the white guy, Athena.”

Athena looked away. She turned back and said, “Well, that sounds racist, Lara.”

“What?” replied Lara.

Athena shocked herself with that accusation. Perhaps all those months of being pent up in her apartment at the Towers caused her to forget how to act civilly with others. She knew she had gone too far, but it was too late anyways. She let herself loose. “Asians who date Asians are so insecure. You need to get out of your bubble and be more open minded.”

“Okay, Athena. Who I date and marry is my personal business,” said Lara. “Oh my, you are so not woke. Do you know what’s up?”

Athena chuckled. “I don’t know what language you young people speak these days.”

“With all due respect, we clearly live in different worlds. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t mind, Athena, I’d like to talk to you about the conference call earlier today.”

Athena calmed down. “I’m listening,” she said.

“Athena, I wanted to let you know that I sent the financials to Art, because he had called me and asked me to send the preliminary updates to him early. So I did. I should have kept you in the loop about that. I’m sorry.”

Athena paused and then replied, “I see.”

“There’s something else I need to tell you,” continued Lara. Athena looked at Lara not knowing what to expect. “I’ll be leaving Lokia 4D Visual at the end of the month. I’m moving to South Korea.”

“You’re moving?”

“Yes, I’m engaged and my fiancé’s work is there. But I’m planning for a seamless transition on my end at Lokia and for the AR project. Mike Patterson, the finance head of development, will be taking my place. I’ve already been getting him up to speed on the rollout.”

“This is all such a surprise,” responded Athena. “Congratulations on your engagement.”

“Thank you. It’ll be an adjustment. As someone who’s been raised American, it’ll be a process to become truly ‘Koreanized,’” laughed Lara. “But I’ve got family there, so that helps.”

“So he’s the one?”

“My fiancé? Yes, he’s the one.” Laura said smiling.

“South Korea is awfully far from New York. How’d you two meet?”

“We’re both from Atlanta. Our families knew each other since I was young. My fiancé is very international. We did our own things, but we always stayed in touch. No one knows me like Dae-Seong. He’s my best friend.”

“Good for you,” said Athena.

Lara continued. “You know, I’ll be thirty-seven soon. I really want to have kids and a family. I don’t want to have regrets.”

“What does your fiancé do? If you don’t mind me asking,” questioned Athena.

“No, that’s fine. He’s an actor. You’re probably not into K-dramas, but he’s Gim Dae-Seong from ‘Uncommon Ground.’”

“K-dramas? No, I don’t know much about that.”

“The show he’s on is a pretty popular family TV series in Korea. All the past episodes are on Netflix. You can check it out if you want. It’s pretty entertaining stuff.” Lara looked down at her phone. She had just received a text. As Lara texted someone back, Athena glanced over.

“It’s my fiancé. He’s here,” said Lara. Lara looked up at Athena. “You can meet him!”

“Uh, okay,” said Athena.

Lara turned her head to the street as a black sedan pulled up. Athena looked over as well. A body guard got out and opened the back door. A tall, well-dressed Asian gentleman with broad shoulders and chiseled features emerged from the vehicle. The actor and his body guard walked over to their table. Lara was beaming and introduced her fiancé to Athena.

Gim Dae-Seong bowed and said, “Nice to meet you, Ms. Athena Yu.” His smile revealed a dimple on his left cheek.

Athena was impressed with his respectful nature and charm. “Nice to meet you,” she replied back.

Lara and her fiancé exchanged some words in Korean. Lara smiled and turned back to Athena. “Athena, Dae-Seong and I have some wedding planning to do. Thank you for coming out to meet me.”

“Of course,” said Athena. She raised her hand to her mouth and said as if in confidence, “Hey, Lara. He’s a good looking guy. For an Asian. Congratulations.”

“Okay, Athena,” sighed Lara. “I will see you at the office on Monday.”

As Lara and her fiancé walked to the black car, a fan ran up to Dae-Seong. Athena watched the actor sign an autograph and take a picture with the fan. He then helped Lara into the car before he climbed in and had their driver take them away. Athena stayed seated to digest everything that had just happened. The waiter came back and brought Athena’s espresso and salad. I should have known to always expect the unexpected, she thought to herself. She was disappointed that Art had undermined her by asking Lara for information without being kept in the loop though.

As Athena nibbled on her food, she checked her email on her phone. She saw an email from Art and opened it. He was giving her a heads up that on Monday he would announce her position as the official Finance Director. She was no longer an ‘interim.’ Athena was pleased. Things were looking up. Lara would be gone too. Whatever issues she had with Art, she decided to let it go.

Back at home, Athena retired to her bedroom to relax and unwind. She was curious and turned on Netflix to search for ‘Uncommon Ground’ starring Gim Dae-Seong. She watched the first episode and was surprised how drawn into the characters she became. The range of emotions she felt through their storylines was satisfying. She let the second episode roll on. Athena thought of Lara and how happy she looked with her attentive, handsome fiancé. Next month would be Athena’s 49th birthday. She secretly wondered if she too would one day find a companion to draw her out of her tower above, her apartment at Tesseract Towers.

A “knock, knock,” startled her. Athena turned off her smart TV and listened. It wasn’t her front door. The sound was coming from her large desktop screen. She froze. And then it came again, “knock, knock!” Athena saw Art’s face appear on the screen of her Alexa Show that sat on her credenza nearby.

“Hey, Art. I don’t remember giving you drop-in permission for my Alexa.”

“I got in through a loop hole on your smart refrigerator,” he laughed.

“Excuse me?”

“Athena, I’m in beta testing mode. Go ahead and allow entrance through your computer,” Art said. “I want to come in. Just hit ‘yes’ on your virtual touch screen.”

Athena went to her Alexa app on her phone and pulled up a copy of one of the quote’s Art had sent her. She altered it… “'The Art of tech does not protect; it reveals a multitude of sins.’”

“Athena,” pleaded Art from the Alexa.

“No, Art. This is creepy,” said Athena.

Athena went over and hit ‘No’ on the virtual screen, which meant No to his full body, virtual image entering her room in a state of mixed, augmented reality. She stayed out of the camera’s view on her Alexa Show and said, “Spend some time with your wife. I’ll see you on Monday at the office.”

“Athena,” said Art.

Athena’s heart was racing. She stood behind the Alexa screen, out of the camera’s line of sight and didn’t respond.

“Okay,” said Art. “I just wanted to drop in and congratulate you on becoming our official Finance Director. You’re doing a great. I will see you in-person at the office meeting.”

Athena pondered whether to further engage in conversation. But she didn’t want to prolong the situation. When Art’s image disappeared from the Alexa, Athena quickly went over to the box and unplugged it. She moved the switch on top to close the camera. She took some post-it notes and covered the camera lens on her desktop computer, her laptop and on her phone. She also pulled out their plugs. She pulled the plug on her smart TV and powered off her phone. Lastly, she disabled the self-automated service on her IoT fridge. She had had enough technology and enough excitement for the day.

Athena lay on her pillow in her bedroom and looked out through her expansive, floor-to-ceiling windows. She gazed at the stars in the night sky and at the city glowing below. She could see people in the windows of the building in the distance. Athena got up and drew the shades. She climbed back under the covers of her weighted blanket and closed her eyes. It was the first good night’s sleep she had had in quite a long time.

Knock, Knock Who’s There; Photo credit: Petri R., Pexels

Samantha Der is a regular contributor for The Universal Asian. To learn more about her, check out her Contributor’s Page here.


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