Looking out across the sea of plastic chairs, I can already feel an impending ache in my arms. The Innovation Concert Hall is absolutely covered in confetti. Small, star-shaped pieces of shiny, colorful plastic gleam underneath the harsh venue lights, clinging to every surface. Of everything it could be, I think to myself, Why did it have to be confetti? It's not even paper. If it was paper, we could just dissolve it with water, but nope. That would be too convenient.
My gaze shifts to the corner of the room, all the way on the other side of the seating area. My partner-in-janitorial-work is staring at the mess with a foreboding expression. They meet my eyes and gesture around them before bringing their hand to their forehead and dragging it down their face in defeat. I echo their sentiment with a deep sigh and a shrug, hefting a push-broom off my shoulder and letting it fall to the floor with a loud clatter. A half-beat later my partner mimics the gesture and we both get to work.
At least this time around, we're working with nearly new brooms. The last time my partner and I had to clean a plastic confetti mess, our brooms had been near the end of their life span. The bristles were dull and bent, just as likely to fall out and add to the mess as they were to push it around. By the end of the night, my partner was glaring at their tool so harshly I almost worried they would break it over their knee in retaliation. It was kind of funny, after the fact. They've always been pleasantly expressive, but the open animosity toward an inanimate object was a new one.
I smile a bit at the memory, dropping my dustpan on the floor to collect the first small pile of trash of the night. A soft clack from the other side of the venue tells me that my work partner is doing the same, keeping pace with me easily. I glance up at them and notice they're also sporting a smile, amusement mixed in equal part with satisfaction. No doubt they too are comparing this confetti cleanup to the last. They meet my eyes and their smile brightens, gesturing to the two rows of chairs they've been able to sweep with barely a hitch. I nod to my own completed rows in agreement, then turn back to the task at hand, scooping trash into the large black bag tucked into my belt.
As I continue to sweep, the soft swishing of the broom fades to the background, a steady white noise that gives my thoughts space to wander. I'd be lying if I said this work is never tedious. It was absolute hell when I first started out. I didn't have the muscle memory to clean without focusing on my movements, so I had to force myself to stay focused on each pass of the broom. As I got used to it, things got easier, but the real turning point was when my usual partner started working the same shift as me.
My work partner started on my shift about nine months ago, three months after I started. We quickly found that we make a good team. We work at the same pace, making it easy to develop a system. They clean the left half of the seating area, and I clean the right half. Then, when it's time to go down to the floor in front of the stage, they start on the left side and I start on the right. We meet in the middle, bag the trash together, and we're done. The whole process is completed in companionable silence, occasionally broken by a few words of mutual encouragement or meaningless small talk as we cross paths.
As I move from row to row, I pause to look their way again, watching as they pluck a discarded red cup from one of the seats. They catch my gaze and playfully raise the cup in a mock toast before tossing it into their trash bag. I chuckle and, seeing as I lack a suitable piece of garbage to return the gesture, give them a lazy salute before I turn my back and sweep on. That's another thing about my partner that I like- their attitude. Cleaning can be miserable work, but having someone to mess around with and share in that misery makes it more bearable. They say you can only like your job as much as you like your coworkers, and even though I don't know their name, my work partner is probably the best coworker I've ever had.
A piece of that thought sticks with me as I bend over to pick up an empty popcorn bag, crumpling it into a ball. I don't know my work partner's name. I don't know a lot of things about them, actually. For someone I think of so fondly, if somebody asked, I wouldn't be able to answer a single question about them. I don't know how long they've been with the company or what they like to do after work. I don't even know little things, like their favorite color or how they like their coffee. Do they even drink coffee?
I'm hit with a sudden pinch of anxiety, creeping from my chest down my back. Can I even think of them as my partner, if I know them so little?
I shake my head at myself as I reach the end of another row of seats, bending over to shovel more trash into my bag. I'm overthinking things. If I'm really that bothered by not knowing my partner's name, why don't I just ask? Sure, it might be a bit of an awkward question after working together for so long, but it's not like I'm asking them anything deeply personal. It's just a name, right? Right! So, next time our paths cross, I'll just come out and ask. No big deal at all.
I nearly startle out of my skin as my partner speaks from behind me, having reached the end of their row a moment after I did. I must have been deeper in my head than I thought; I hadn't even noticed their approach. Amusement graces their lips as they tilt their head, arching an eyebrow in question as they set their dustpan on the floor. I find myself awkwardly adjusting my grip on my broom as all the nonchalant bravado I'd had a moment ago drains out of me.
"No, I'm alright," I tell them. "I was just thinking."
"That's dangerous," they tease as they brush trash into their dustpan, then straighten to tip the pan into their trash bag. "What were you thinking about?"
Well, if there was ever a convenient opening to ask, this is it. I resist the urge to physically shake off my nerves, then answer. "I don't know your name," I say plainly. That was more blunt than I intended, and I get the feeling my partner can tell as they pause to look at me. My face starts to feel warm as they lean against their broom with a teasing glint in their eye, moving their hand to their hip as they wait for me to continue. "I mean, do you mind if I ask you your name?" I try to amend.
My partner smiles a bit, then takes their hand from their hip and offers it to me. "It's Aspen," they tell me. "What's yours?"
I take their hand, noting with a little surprise that aside from the callouses at the base of their palm, their skin is soft. "Uh- Ben," I manage stiffly, cringing at my own inelegance. Thankfully, Aspen doesn't seem to mind. If anything, they seem amused.
"It's nice to formally meet you, Ben," they say, shaking my hand once before letting go. It's quiet for a moment before I realize they're waiting for me to respond.
"It's nice to meet you, too," I reply. "That, uh, was all I was wondering, so..."
I trail off, the warmth in my cheeks growing to a heat I'm sure Aspen can see. They chuckle, the familiar sound soothing a bit of my embarrassment. "I'll let you get back to it," they say, and I find myself incredibly grateful for the easy out. I nod and turn away from them, hastily shoving my broom across the floor as I sweep some distance between us.
What was that?! I ask myself, resisting the urge to groan. Has working this job caused what few social skills I have to atrophy? That could not possibly have been more awkward. No, I could not have possibly been more awkward! And for what reason?! It's not like I've never spoken to Aspen at all before. We've chat plenty of times, albeit briefly, and never about ourselves. But that's just it, isn't it? We've never needed to talk about ourselves to get along. Aspen wears their feelings clearly on their face, thoughts easily conveyed with a gesture. I wouldn't consider myself nearly as expressive, but with Aspen, I don't need to be. They're just as good at reading me as they are at making themselves easy to read.
I push the broom a bit harder than necessary across the floor, as if I could sweep away the lingering embarrassment. It kind of works, the heat in my face fading as I force myself to focus on cleaning up every scrap of stupid star-shaped confetti in sight. By the time I reach the general admissions floor, I'm calm again, and glad for it. The last thing I want is for one awkward conversation to ruin my favorite part of the shift.
Not only is sweeping the pit the last thing between me and going home, but Aspen and I have also made a game out of it. Each shift, we wait for each other in opposite corners of the open floor, making sure neither person has a head start. Then, once we're both ready, we race to see who can sweep their side all the way to the center first. We're pretty evenly matched when it comes to sweeping skills, so it's anyone's game. Sure, it might seem childish, but it gives us that extra burst of motivation we need to power through the end of our shift. Aspen was the one that came up with it, of course. They can make a game out of anything.
I tie up the last bag of trash from the seating area, then turn to see Aspen leaning against the opposite wall, waiting for me to get into position. As I move to my starting corner, I feel myself grin, twirling my broom in one hand before placing it against the floor. Aspen pushes off the wall and attempts to copy my move, only to hit themselves in the back of the head with the bristle end of the broom before dropping it on the floor. I can't help myself- I burst into laughter, posture relaxing involuntarily as my shoulders shake. Aspen flips me off, but they're smiling as they pick up their broom and get into position.
They hold up three fingers and I force myself to get serious. I straighten into a ready stance, then hold up two fingers in response. Aspen closes their hand, then holds up one finger. I mirror their movement. Perfectly in sync, we both drop our last finger and let our hands fall back to the grips of our brooms. The race has begun!
It's hard not to laugh again, pushing myself to sweep as quickly as I can without leaving anything behind. The confetti is stubborn, sitting flush against the floor and refusing to be easily swayed into moving. As I fall into a rhythm, my mind circles back to what I do and don't know about Aspen. I resist the urge to roll my eyes at myself. I still don't know why I'm making such a big deal about it. Sure, I might not know Aspen's favorite color, and it may have taken me longer to ask them their name than it takes some folks to carry a baby, but I know other things about them.
For example, I know they like to make tasks into games, and I know they're quicker to laughter than frustration. I know they prefer to keep their hair clipped away from their ears, and its natural color is a dark auburn before they dye it black. I know their eyes are the same shade of brown as the polished walnut frame of my grandmother's piano. I know they hum pop songs from the 2010s to themselves when they're lost in thought. I know they rarely bother to match their socks.
My heartbeat quickens as I contemplate, smiling to myself as the mental list grows longer. I know that Aspen can't tie their shoes correctly, forcing them to stop at least once a night to retie them. I know they share my opinion that confetti is one of the worst substances known to janitors. I know they, like any sane person, double-knot their trash bags. I know that every time I look at them, they seem to sense my gaze, meeting my eyes only a moment later. Or is it just a coincidence, and Aspen likes to observe me, too?
I've nearly reached the center of the room as my thoughts wander away from the list, a quick glance telling me Aspen isn't too far behind. I can't help but ask myself, How much do they know about me? Do they ever wonder about my favorite color, or how I like my coffee? Have I ever occupied their thoughts as they swept, compelling them to list what they do and don't know?
I finish my half of the room only a few broom strokes before Aspen does, heart hammering in my chest and face flushed from a mixture of exertion and something I'm not sure I'm ready to admit. If I wanted to know them better, I wonder to myself, Would they want to know me, too?
Aspen laughs breathlessly as they finish up, pausing to lean against their broom. "Beat me by a hair!" they declare. "I blame the confetti. There was definitely more on my side than there was on yours."
I can't help but grin back at them, lifting my broom and twirling it again just to show off. "Sure," I tease playfully, "It was definitely the confetti. Just like it was the popcorn last time."
"Exactly," Aspen agrees, pointedly ignoring my sarcasm. "In a fair race, I'll beat you every time. Just wait until tomorrow, I'll show you."
I roll my eyes at them, but let them have it, both of us taking a moment to catch our breath. After a few beats of silence, Aspen straightens again. "Alright," they sigh, looking at the line of garbage leftover from our race, "Let's bag this up so we can get out of here."
I couldn't agree more, equally eager to be done for the night. My back is sore from bending over and my arms are starting to feel like jelly. Most of me can't wait to get home and crash into bed... but a small part urges me to linger. The work is hard, and it takes forever, but it's kind of don't want to stop hanging around Aspen. It hadn't occurred to me before today how much and how little I know my work partner. Now that I've asked one question, I find myself wanting to ask more. I want to know their favorite color. I want to know how long they've been with the company, and what they do after work. I want to know their passions, their fears, and every bit of information in between. Suddenly and unbidden, my earlier question morphs into a fervent desire. I do want to know who Aspen is, and I want them to want to know me, too.
Longing settles firmly in my chest as I scoop red cups, paper bracelets, and so many of those damn plastic stars into a large trash bag. I have so many questions, all of a sudden, shifting and swirling in my head. They drop into my stomach as I watch Aspen tie off their last bag of trash for the night, then swoop up into my lungs when they raise their head to meet my eyes. Aspen smiles, and the questions jump up my throat, pressing against the roof of my mouth and trying to come out all at once.
I open my mouth to speak, then close it again, unsure what to say. Aspen seems to notice, tilting their head in question as I hesitate. Silence stretches between us and I look away, giving up and heaving my trash bag over my shoulder. I could barely ask Aspen for their name earlier without melting into a puddle of anxiety. What makes me think I can handle any of the other icebreakers that pop into my head? I sigh and start to haul off the garbage, but before I can get too far, a soft hand with calluses at the base of the palm wraps gently around my forearm.
"Hey," Aspen says, drawing my attention back to them. "How do you like your coffee?"