“How can you study here? It’s chaos, this place.”
He raised his head and saw a woman by the communal table. The woman was probably in her late fifties, he gauged. She didn’t sit down right away, but instead pulled out a phone from her purse, probably waiting for her coffee. She looked at him.
“I guess I just tune out,” he said, looking at her, and gestured toward the book he was reading.
“It’s so chaotic here,” she reiterated, “I would go to a library if I wanted to read something.”
“Well, the library opens at ten.”
“They should be open when the schools are open. They used to be like that when I was little,” the woman frowned, “but the world is upside down these days.”
He smiled at her.
“Upside down and inside out,” she said.
He noticed the small umbrella the woman was carrying with her. She laid it on the table. It was a cloudy day and he remembered reading from the forecasts that it would rain in another hour or two. The canopy of the umbrella consisted of alternating patches, red and green. He thought at first that the woman was going to attend a meeting of a local chapter of some charity, judging from the way she dressed herself. But then there was her small umbrella that befitted an elementary schooler. So maybe not.
He exchanged a glance with his girlfriend across the table. She shrugged, and went back to work on her laptop.
Over the years his attitude changed towards strangers starting conversation with him. In the beginning, when he was new to this country and knew few people, he was glad to have random chats about anything that was not about study or work. Later, when he got acclimated to the life and rhythms here, he started to pick up the nuances. Once, a man made a comment about the book he was reading. When he lowered the book, the man said, gesturing around, “there are too many of these kinds of people.” He looked the man in the eye and asked him: what do you mean? The man looked to the other side, turned back, and said, “nothing, too many people working on their laptops these days, unlike you, you are reading.” He looked around, and not many were working on their laptops, and he had to wonder if the person whom he would otherwise call a gentleman in front of him was not really commenting about working or reading. He decided not to engage, and wished the man a good afternoon.
Years ago, when they were just acquaintances interning at a security research company, she used to tease him when this happened. Once they were chilling at an upscale café near the headquarters, and a man smiled at him and said: “kids in our town need to keep up.” And then the man added, cocking his head toward the algorithm book he was reading, “you guys are working really hard.” That time he didn’t know what to say before the man turned away. She giggled, “how come they always want to have a conversation with you as if I didn’t exist.” He protested that it wasn’t a conversation at all.
“If I were you, I would go to the coffee place down the street,” the woman said.
“Do you know what it’s called?” he asked.
“I can never remember their name. But they open at eleven.”
“Thanks. I may check it out.”
“I've been there a couple of times. It’s very quiet there,” the woman added.
He took another look at his girlfriend, but she was staring at her screen, frowning. He was hoping to use this subtle expression to tell the woman that he was with someone else and did not want to be disturbed. It was clear that she didn’t register that in the first place. He looked for the woman again, and by now she was already sitting at another table, talking to someone over the phone.
The morning had been tense. His girlfriend had an appointment in about an hour. They wanted to find a place to work and relax a little bit, but their usual place wasn’t open on Tuesdays. It was anxious enough when they came here two weeks ago just waiting for her appointment, but today there was a fire at work that she needed to fight. Somebody misplaced a character in a configuration file, and now all the servers were carrying that file and refusing to talk to each other. He didn’t need to work at her company to know it was a grave situation: a window she kept open was still all red, and she must have been pulled into firefighting, all hands on deck, even though she officially requested a few hours off.
An appointment with the lactation consultant was hard to come by, and they couldn’t complain when they got their Tuesday spot. When he first heard how the consultant described his girlfriend’s difficulties in milk expression, he told her, he was initially wondering whether it had anything to do with gene expression: something that ought not to appear shows up, or vice versa, something that should be there isn’t. He was trying to lighten up the mood (just like when he used to ask why people always said they were fighting fires when they were no real firefighters and they wanted all hands on deck when they were not sailors), but she said no, it has nothing to do with the appearance of something. It really just means having difficulties in squeezing the milk out.
“Like espresso,” his girlfriend said.
“And I thought you were curious about words. They derive from the same root.”
“You mean ex-press, to press out…”
He was hoping to reciprocate how she made the situation less tense by way of naming it, but for now all he wanted to do was to accompany her. Before he would bring it up with her (and he was glad he didn’t), he talked to his sister back home, and said they turned out pretty ok, even with the “industrial farming” way many kids of his generation were brought up, and who knows how much baby formula they were given and how early. His sister told him that no, even back home, her friends would see themselves as a failure if they couldn’t breastfeed. “So maybe just shut up and be there,” his sister admonished him. “Who knows where people of our generation get the ideas from, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the pressure is higher there. Your country is probably where people come up with the notion that it is a failure in the first place. It’s a strange form of soft power, I’d say.”
So he decided to keep mum. The past few months were all new to him. His now girlfriend didn’t literally show up in front of the door, but it happened quickly and he took her and her newborn in. He accompanied her to the court to get the restraint order and helped her audit her accounts and communication channels. Sometimes he took the boy out in a carrier on his chest, and there were a few times he got asked whose child it was or what the relationship was between the boy and him, sometimes even in her presence.
For now, though, this noisy place gave him some reprieve. The boy was at the daycare, and he had something to read.
“We should be going,” his girlfriend sighed as she closed her laptop. “I looked it up, the place the lady suggested doesn’t seem too bad,” she added.
He looked around. The woman must have gone already, she and her umbrella. Now they were the only two patrons left.
“I thought you were not paying attention,” he said, putting on his backpack.
“Somehow I did. I needed some distraction in this sea of red lights.”
“But didn’t she say it only opens at eleven?”
“It does. I’m not saying we need to check it out now. Just an option if we get a late appointment next time.”
“I hope they have good coffee.”
“I don’t think they have coffee there,” she said as she put on her backpack.
“What do they have then?”
“It’s a boba place.”