On Hiatus by Robert Boucheron
A paper cup in his right hand, a man in a canvas sport coat glides through the café. He is trim, dark, too old to be a student, possibly a journalist. A briefcase hangs from his left hand. He has an air of being from out-of-town.
The man raises the cup to pursed lips and peers over the rim, eyes veiled by steam. He is scouting a seat. The café is crowded at nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning.
A young woman sits alone at a little table for two. She wears a casual top and pants, no makeup. Her hair is long and dark and falls in waves to her shoulders. She is a regular customer. This is her neighborhood café.
On the table in front of the woman is a paper cup and an open laptop. She stares over it, her eyes vague. Her fingers rest on the keyboard, motionless. She spots the approaching man, snaps to attention, and lowers the lid of her laptop.
“If you are about to say something pleasant or innocuous like ‘Good morning’ or ‘How’s it going,’ please don’t.”
The man opens his mouth, but she cuts him off.
“I can’t talk to anyone right now, even people I know, much less a complete stranger. I can’t exchange comments on the weather, or make polite chit-chat, or offer a breezy critique of the current international mess, much less engage in meaningful dialogue. So, if you need a place to sit and mind your own business, go right ahead. But if you see that chair as a pretext for striking up a conversation, please move along.”
The man stops dead in his tracks.
“Don’t look at me like that, all wide-eyed and quizzical. To the casual observer, it may look like I’m wool-gathering, but actually I’m working. My best ideas come when I’m surrounded by people in a stimulating environment, like this café. Maybe it’s the constant movement and the low level of noise, like being near the sea or a splashing fountain. Or maybe it’s the fact that all these other people are thinking and creating. They’re writing wonderful stories, beautiful poems, and feature articles on important issues of the day.”
The man grips his briefcase, gives it a tiny hoist. He wants to argue, explain, defend. But the woman barely pauses for breath.
“Some of them are, anyway. Some of them are scrolling through messages and social media posts. And some of them are composing carefully worded emails to co-workers, relatives, and friends, people they have to be nice to, people who email them all the time about things they don’t want to know, things they used to care about, and things they’ve been trying to forget. That’s a thing, you know. If you sincerely want to change, to discard the old and make room for the new, all you have to do is put your mind to it. Make a clean break, call a halt, hit pause.”
The man sips his coffee.
“I could claim that I’m on a tight deadline for a freelance project, and it wouldn’t be a total lie, because there’s always a deadline, and I do take on assignments for magazines that pay at least a nominal amount. At the moment, though, I’m working on my own project, something I started several months ago. I can’t really discuss it. It keeps moving in different directions and shifting focus. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted, completely original, no rules. That’s why it looks like I’m doing nothing at all, when in reality my brain is churning. If I yawn, it’s because all that mental effort takes up oxygen.”
Involuntarily, the man yawns.
“Call me antisocial. Sorry, but that’s the price we pay. Maybe you’re a fascinating person with lots to say on a variety of topics.”
He shrugs modestly.
“We could have a lovely time, discover shared interests, trade email addresses and links to personal websites, and so on and so forth. The morning could slip away. Hours could pass with nothing accomplished and no regret. We could become friends. Who knows?”
Thinking she has relented, he makes one last try.
“But I’m on hiatus.”
Robert Boucheron worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville from 1978 to 2016. His freelance writing appears in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.