Crosspost from Cecil’s Writers
Paul isn’t ashamed to admit that he writes romances for a living.
Freelance writing gigs are hard to come by – the lucrative ones even more so. But ten thousand word stories about some dewy-eyed blonde falling for a vampire/werebear/dragon lord are always in demand and easy to churn out. It keeps him fed while he works on other stuff. It means he can call himself a writer even though none of the stories have ever appeared under his name.
He goes to his usual coffee spot every morning, a cosy joint in a hidden corner of Canberra, where the caffeine is strong and free-flowing and the walls are covered in hessian sacks instead of paint. Paul would usually set up his laptop on one of the rickety, paint-chipped tables and type for hours. Usually, because that Monday he walks in to find Artisan Roast overflowing with people.
Paul pushes his way to the counter.
‘Bit busy today,’ the barista, Greg, says from behind the safety of the cash register.
A tuft of hair falls into Paul’s eyes and he tries to blow it away. ‘A bit, yeah,’ he replies. A woman in a moomoo bumps him on her way past with a frothy frappuccino in each fist.
‘Ah – yeah, sure.’ Paul stares around, but he still can’t see any free tables. He chews the inside of his cheek as he glares around at the people invading his favourite space, laughing and chatting, swilling their ridiculous drinks.
Everyone is sitting in groups chatting or on their phones, but an Indian man with a Macbook and a large iced coffee sits in the corner, his glasses skewed as he chews on his tongue and typing rapidly. There is an empty seat opposite him. As Paul eyes that seat off, the man looks up and meets Paul’s eyes. Instead of looking away, Paul holds up his own laptop – a beat-up PC covered in stickers – and throws a questioning look at the empty seat.
Macbook looks from Paul to the empty seat, and then back to Paul. He shrugs. Paul takes that as consent. When Greg hands over Paul’s flat white, Paul manoeuvres around the many people lingering near the counter and grabs the seat. He nods his thanks to Macbook, who nods back before turning his bright amber eyes back to the screen in front of him. He types as though Paul isn’t there. Paul appreciates that.
Opening his own laptop, Paul boots up his freelance account and checks his messages. One of his clients wants him to write ten thousand words about a girl falling in love with an alien prince. It sounds awful but he accepts the job. Then he opens a new document and starts typing up the outline for a dream he had the night before, which he hopes will make a good horror story.
When he glances up, he sees Macbook’s eyes are fixed on the back of Paul’s laptop. Paul’s niece had heroically donated some of her My Little Pony stickers to pimp out her uncle’s laptop. Those stickers had probably done more to keep Paul single than his hectic work schedule ever could.
Macbook meets Paul’s eye. He looks back at his own screen, apparently embarrassed that he’d been caught staring.
Paul wanted to point out that if Macbook really wanted to laugh he could read The Werelion’s Lover, which had taken Paul five hours to write – five hours of his life that he would never get back again. Five hours of awkward, unnecessarily lyrical prose that had inexplicably risen in the Kindle charts.
But he doesn’t. He just sips his coffee and turns his attention to his laptop. He closes the horror outline and opens another document. Maybe if he gets that awful alien prince romance out of the way early, he can get down to drafting the horror story before he goes to bed tonight.
Paul shares a table with Macbook again two days later.
Artisan Roast isn’t as crowded as it had been Monday. This time, Paul does see an empty table across the café, but then he nearly ends up wearing his flat white when an obese girl backs into him with a green tea latte. He only just manages to keep all of the coffee in the mug. When he looks back at the empty table some arsehole with a tablet and an espresso has taken the empty seat.
‘Goddamit,’ Paul mutters.
Then he sees Macbook in the corner with an empty seat across from him. Paul is there within moments. Macbook has his eyes on the screen, his fingers moving rapidly across the keyboard, and Paul needs to clear his throat to get the other man’s attention.
Macbook looks up. Paul nods towards the empty seat. Macbook’s lip quirks up at the corner as he nods his assent and Paul slides into the seat, pulling his laptop out of his bag in one well-practiced motion. Macbook goes back to his own work without a word. He has an iced coffee again, right next to his elbow
Paul had knocked out the story about the alien prince the night before, but he needs to give it a quick read before he sends it to the client. There’s another message in his inbox about an M/M/F cougarshifter romance, but he leaves that alone for now.
Across the table from him, Macbook keeps typing. His rapid keystrokes and the toneless droning of the other café inhabitants drowns out Paul’s own thoughts for a moment. He wonders what Macbook does for a living that makes him type so much. Is he a writer too?
Paul drags his eyes away from the back of Macbook’s macbook and onto his own battered PC, opening the outline for the horror story that he hasn’t touched since he started it.
Then nothing happens.
Paul stares at the screen with its half-filled word doc, his fingers resting on the keyboard, and nothing happens.
How is it that the words come so quickly when he’s working on a romance about paranormal creatures having improbable sex with human women but when he wants to write something that he’ll actually be proud of, they won’t come? Paul sucks on his own teeth: a nervous habit he’s been working on for years.
His skype icon pings and Paul pulls it up, grateful to have something to distract him from the unbearable whiteness of the half-blank page.
It’s Liam: u free to chat?
Paul: Chat, yes. Video chat, no.
Liam: K. can you babysit tomorrow night? Were going to a play.
Paul: Sure. Is there a reason you’re not taking the anklebiter?
Liam: yeah it’s a play.
Paul smothers a grin. There’s nothing weirder than seeing someone smiling at their screen in public, so he makes it a point to avoid it as much as possible. For public safety. And because he has weird crooked teeth. Liam has perfect teeth, but that’s because their parents could only afford one set of braces.
He and Liam hash out the details of Paul’s next babysitting gig – unpaid because he loves his niece more than he loves making money. Paul’s typing starts to take on a strange rhythm and he realises that he’s picked up Macbook’s beat. He glances over to catch the other man pausing in his typing to push his sleeves up, push his chair away from the table and head up to the cash register, leaving his shiny macbook and iPhone on the table with Paul.
Paul wonders if he would ever be as trusting of a stranger. Or maybe Macbook just thinks that he’d be able to tackle Paul if he tried to bolt with the other man’s computer.
Liam: do u remember what day kate’s bday is?
Paul: Kate? Your wife?
Liam: dont b a dick
Paul: April 12. You’re a shitty husband.
Liam: so she tells me
Paul shakes his head at the screen before realising what he is doing and craning his neck to see if anyone is looking at him. No one is.
Macbook returns to the table with a steaming sandwich. He starts up his typing again. Paul watches him for a moment before realising that he is hungry too. He wavers over leaving his PC and bag at the table. Finally, he decides to just do it, sending one last See you later to his brother and abandoning his laptop at the table. He pulls out his wallet as he heads to the cash register and feels the hairs raise on his neck as he imagines every terrible thing that could happen to his gear while it’s in the hands of a stranger.
Paul orders a teriyaki chicken roll from Greg the barista, casting short glances at the corner where Macbook sits. Just in case. Macbook doesn’t seem to have noticed that Paul is gone. His hands move over the keyboard with the kind of speed that makes Paul both envious and amazed. He wonders again what Macbook does for a living. Does he have an office? Is he a freelancer, like Paul?
Greg hands Paul his chicken roll with a wink. Paul returns to the table and his unmolested PC, thinking that maybe he should just get started on the M/M/F story. That way he’ll be fresh for the horror story later on.
After that, Paul sits across from Macbook every day. He listens to the near-constant tapping of Macbook’s long fingers on the keyboard and uses it as a backdrop to his own typing. It gets to the point where Paul prefers that sound when he’s working. So when Paul comes to the café on Tuesday morning and finds it less crowded than before, and there are several tables available for once, he goes to sit with Macbook anyway. He doesn’t even ask permission. Macbook makes eye contact with him as he sits, but says nothing.
Paul wonders if Macbook wonders about him. Does Macbook call Paul ‘PC’ in his head? Or ‘Stickers’?
On Thursday, Paul comes into the café a little later than usual. He sees Macbook in his usual seat with an iced coffee next to his elbow that’s down to the dregs.
‘The usual?’ asks Greg the barista. He’s gelled his hair back today and it looks terrible.
‘Yeah,’ Paul says. Then he makes a decision. ‘And a medium iced coffee, too.’
Both drinks in hand, Paul walks over to the table he shares with Macbook. Wordlessly, he slides the new iced coffee over to the other man. Macbook looks up at Paul with a question in his gaze. Then he takes his right hand off of the keyboard and slides over the plate which had been hidden from Paul’s view. There are two sandwiches on it.
Paul takes one. They chew and type in silence; Paul working on a Mail-Order Bride romance, Macbook working on God knows what.
That becomes their ritual. Over the next few weeks, Paul gets the drinks and Macbook gets the food. They work together for a couple of hours. Usually, Paul is the one to leave first, though one Saturday Macbook is the one who gathers his things together and pushes his glasses up to rub his eyes before nodding to Paul and leaving without a word. It’s always without words for them.
Paul keeps hacking away at the freelance shit. Romance after romance after romance, and even though he’s not ashamed to admit that he writes them he can’t help but feel the soul-crushing monotony beginning to take its toll. Boy-meets-girl can be fun, once in a while. Boy-meets-girl ad nauseam gets less fun every day.
But when Paul opens the horror outline and reads over what he’s got down so far, he just doesn’t feel it. He reads that outline as if someone else wrote it. It feels both familiar and foreign and without a connection to the words on the page he finds it harder and harder to think of how he could write the whole thing. How he could fill in the skeleton that he built for himself weeks ago. Every day that horror story moves further and further out of his reach.
‘Liam, for fuck’s sake – answer your phone!’ Paul says as he walks down the busy street towards Artisan Roast. He nearly gets cleaned up by a bike rider because he’s more focused on his phone than he is on where he’s going. ‘Becca just called me in tears saying you and Kate are getting a divorce. Tell me it hasn’t gotten that bad –’
He checks both sides of the road before crossing. His laptop bag is swinging on his shoulder as he half-jogs across the hot bitumen. The scorching sun blazes down, sending thick waves of humidity off the ground and Paul can feel the back of his neck going pink with it.
A beeping in his ear lets him know that he’s gone over the maximum time for voice messages. Paul hangs up and calls Kate – but his sister-in-law’s phone is off as well.
‘Shit,’ he mutters.
Paul pauses in the street. From where he stands, he can see Artisan Roast in its quiet corner, out of the way of prying tourists – hidden from practically everyone who doesn’t already know where it is. He wonders if it is even worth going in today. He won’t be able to concentrate, not even on the romances that he churns out with such an alarming lack of effort. When he looks down, he realises that he was so distracted this morning that he buttoned his shirt like a blind man in the dark. He quickly sorts himself out, grateful that his undershirt is there to protect the sliver of dignity he keeps closely guarded.
He thinks about turning around and heading to the station to catch a bus to his brother’s place.
But Macbook is probably there, a little voice in his head says. With two sandwiches, waiting on his coffee. And even though Paul’s brother’s marriage is apparently falling apart, Paul finds his feet moving without his conscious approval – creeping forward at a snail’s pace in the direction of Artisan Roast.
He goes in. The familiar smell of roasted coffee beans and vanilla hits him. The café is almost empty, with only a table full of teenagers in the corner – a loud, poorly dressed reminder that school holidays have started. Paul stares at the hessian sacks on the walls, reading the brand names stamped across them for the first time, before his eyes fall on Macbook in his usual seat. Macbook doesn’t look up when Paul comes in. His eyes are on the screen as always, his fingers moving across the keyboard in a blur.
Paul gets the drinks and joins him. Macbook nods to Paul and offers him a sandwich. Paul takes it. Then he opens his laptop and stares at the desktop for only a moment before he pulls up Skype and types a message to his brother.
Paul: What is happening?
Paul: Answer your phone.
Paul: At least talk to your daughter, she’s freaking out.
Nothing. Not even a ‘Received’ message. Paul sends his brother another text, before leaning back in his chair and staring at the screen in moody silence.
An audible sniff makes Paul’s head jerk up. Across the table, Macbook has a hand over his mouth and the beginnings of tears pooling in his eyes as he stares at his own screen. His other hand is limp, resting on the table next to the keyboard. It’s the first time Paul has seen the man’s hands look so still.
Paul watches as a fat tear slides out of Macbook’s left eye and down his cheek. Paul looks around quickly to see if anyone else has noticed. No one looks at the table in the corner but Paul thinks that he can feel the judgement of everyone in the room. What kind of… crying in public? Really?
Paul knows that he shouldn’t stare – he probably shouldn’t even acknowledge the other man when he is clearly having a moment of weakness. Not for the first time, Paul wishes that he knew what Macbook does. What is it that has his fingers flying over the keyboard the way they do? What is he looking at with those wide amber eyes that has made his face crumble? He’s sniffling and pushing his glasses up to wipe at his eyes, then looking quickly around the café with the same nervous energy that Paul had when he’d looked – checking whether anyone has noticed. His neck and cheeks are red and a hiccup escapes his mouth that he tries to swallow down.
When his eyes meet Paul’s, Paul does him the favour of looking away.
This man is a stranger. Paul doesn’t know his name, they’ve never even said ‘Hello’ to each other. And Paul has his own problems right now. He stares at the unanswered Skype chat on his screen, he checks his phone for messages, but nothing will distract him from the crying man across the table.
What happened? he wants to ask. What is it? How can I fix it?
But no words pass Paul’s lips. Before his mind can remind him that the man across the table is a stranger, Paul reaches across and covers Macbook’s frozen hand with his own. He determinedly does not look at the other man, but out of the corner of his eye he sees Macbook jump when Paul’s hand touches his. Paul hopes that this one gesture is enough because he can’t think of any words to say.
There is a long, pregnant pause.
Macbook squeezes Paul’s hand once, then pulls away. Paul lets him. Macbook dips his head onto his chest and takes a deep breath. Then he packs up his macbook and leaves the café, his untouched iced coffee the only thing Paul has left to prove that Macbook was ever there.
When he is gone, Paul’s phone finally rings.
‘Do you think Mum hates Dad?’ Becca asks. Her hands are full of playdoh and there’s an unshed tear in her eye that makes Paul’s heart shatter at the sight of it.
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘They’re just different people, Squirt.’
They’ve been working with the playdoh together for hours and this is the first time she’s brought up her mum and dad. Paul hadn’t wanted to be the one to bring it up, though he knows that Liam’s probably counting on him to check in on the kid. To make sure that she’s not about to have a breakdown over her parents’ divorce.
Separation, he reminds himself. It’s not a divorce until the ink’s dry on the papers.
He loves hanging out with Becca, but he’s been on edge all morning waiting for her to ask whatever questions she has. Becca’s pretty chilled out for a three-year-old, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t ask a million questions if the mood takes her. The tricky bit is knowing when the mood will take her. And being prepared for it. He’s been preparing for it all morning and it’s starting to wear on him. The fact that he keeps looking at the clock doesn’t help at all.
Becca looks at him from underneath her fair eyelashes. ‘Was it something I did?’
‘How in the hell –’ He needs to take a moment to collect his thoughts. ‘Of course not!’
‘Will I have to choose which house I live in?’
Paul hesitates. ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
She mulls that over. ‘I think I’ll choose Mum,’ she says. ‘She remembers birthdays.’
Paul goes to run his hand through his hair, catching himself before he does. His hands are covered in blue flour and water which will likely stain his hair if he touches it.
Becca and Paul are cross-legged on the floor of Paul’s one bedroom flat, next to the lounge with the spare blankets draped over it – the only sign that her father has spent the last week sleeping there. Liam is meeting with his lawyer, so Becca’s with her uncle. Kate doesn’t seem to be angry with Paul, yet, so he’s still an acceptable babysitter. Paul watches his little niece roll the playdoh with her hands and feels himself shiver at the thought of maybe not getting to see her anymore. Of Kate deciding that Liam’s whole family should lose Becca just because Liam turned out to be a shitty husband.
Paul glances at the clock again. It’s well past time for him to head to Artisan Roast. He wonders if Macbook is still waiting for him, or if he’s eaten the second sandwich and bought his own coffee.
‘It’s not like you’ve got other stuff to do,’ Liam had said last night when he’d asked his brother to babysit.
Paul couldn’t come out and say that he has a standing date with a guy he’s never even spoken to. He’d just sighed and nodded along, agreeing to keep Becca company while her dad went into town to try and figure out how much his wife can take him for and how he can stop her. Frankly, Paul thinks that it’s Kate who should be worried about getting taken to the cleaners. She’s the one who bought the house. Liam just did the interiors.
But he’s not about to talk to Becca about that. Instead, he rolls out a blue snake to match her pink one, adding it to the zoo with his wobbly giraffe and her crocodile. The crocodile looks like a worm, but Paul’s giraffe looks like a llama so he’s not really in a place to judge.
‘Will Dad be unemployed like you?’ Becca asks.
‘I’m not unemployed, Squirt,’ Paul tells her. ‘I’m a writer.’
‘Dad says that’s the same thing.’
‘Your dad’s a… no, Squirt, it’s not the same thing,’ says Paul. ‘Being a writer just means I get to spend the day hanging out with you instead of going to an office.’
Becca nods along, her bottom lip sticking out as she considers that new information. Paul wants to ask when her dad had told her that being a writer is the same as being unemployed, then decides that he’d rather not know. It’s the sort of thing that’ll just make Christmas dinners awkward.
‘I want to make a unicorn, now,’ Becca says.
‘I’ll help you,’ Paul replies. He reaches for the glittery playdoh, accepting that he’ll be finding glitter in weird places for at least the next week. ‘You want to do the horn?’
So they work on the unicorn. Paul does the tail. Becca supervises. It’s calming work but it’s tough for Paul to think of anything but the lawyer his brother is meeting with, the fact that the little girl in front of him will probably be shunting between two homes for the rest of her childhood, and Macbook at Artisan Roast, probably wondering where Paul is. Is he worried that he scared Paul off with his crying?
Paul doesn’t want the man to think he got scared off.
As he and Becca build on the unicorn, and then build on the unicorn’s sister – ‘You can’t have too many unicorns, Uncle Paul!’ – Paul starts to wonder idly if he will have time later this afternoon to try and make another go at the horror story he’s still got outlined on his laptop. He’s left the document open so that it’s there whenever he boots the machine up, waiting for him, reminding him that he still needs to start it. Every day he looks at the document with regret before minimising it and going on to one of his freelance jobs.
Tonight he should be free, though. He’ll have a crack at it once he’s gone to bed, once Becca’s gone back to her mum’s and Liam is asleep.
In the meantime, he’s got a badass playdoh unicorn to make.
Paul’s bag thumps against his thighs as he half-jogs to Artisan Roast. His lungs are burning and he can feel sweat dripping down his back as the blazing summer sun attacks him from above. He’d left Liam back at his place with a punnet of ice cream and a fan, hoping that his brother’s depressive mood will have dissipated a little bit by the time Paul returns. It’s a small hope, but a hope nonetheless.
He must look like a crazy person, running down the road towards the coffee shop. He’s got bags under his eyes, his hair’s a mess, and he hasn’t had a decent shave in days because Liam hogs the bathroom. He looked like he’d been put through the ringer before he got all sweaty and red-faced.
The divorce is going poorly. Turns out there’s very little sympathy among legislators for a guy caught having an affair.
Paul had wanted to beat his brother bloody when he found out about that. It’s one thing to be forgetful, occasionally callous, but another to stick your dick in some twenty-year-old while your wife’s at work and your brother is babysitting. Paul had called Kate immediately when he’d found out.
‘It’s just… every day it’s something new,’ she’d told him through the phone, pausing halfway through her sentence to shush Becca as she vroomed through the house pretending to be a rocketship. ‘Some new secret, some new lie.’
‘I promise you, Katie – I had no idea.’
He hadn’t. He’d have told her if he had. Family loyalty only goes so far when your family is being an arsehole, and Paul’s always liked Kate. He didn’t want to see her hurt or humiliated.
‘I know,’ Kate replied, though something in her tone told him that she had her doubts.
Proof of an affair is enough for the divorce. Now it’s just a matter of divvying up the assets: the house, the cars, and their three-year-old. It would only get worse from here.
But Paul can’t wallow in the breakdown of his brother’s marriage. No matter what Liam tells Becca, Paul does have a job. He needs to work and he can’t do it with Liam lurking in the flat like a snarky ghost. So he left for Artisan Roast, barely convincing Liam not to come with him.
When he finally gets there, he’s out of breath but he’s on time. He glances at his watch to double check, but no – he’s even a little bit early. He straightens up, runs a hand through his hair, and tries to get his breath back as he enters the café. Paul looks immediately to the corner of the room.
Macbook is there, typing on his computer, two sandwiches next to his hand.
Releasing the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding, Paul waves down Greg the barista and gets the usual. Then he carries the two mugs over to Macbook’s table and sets them down on the wood with a soft click. Macbook looks up, nods to Paul, and keeps typing. It’s as if Paul never left. As if the crying incident never happened.
Paul slides into his chair, feeling the familiar squish of the cushion beneath him. He pushes Macbook’s iced coffee towards the other man. Then he whips out his laptop.
It’s covered in unicorn stickers.
And Paul wants to crumble at the sight of his laptop, covered in his niece’s glittery stickers, containing his unfinished – not even started – horror story and his email account full of requests for stupid, pointless romances that drain so much of his energy that by the time he gets around to writing something he actually wants to he just wants to sleep. Paul wants to throw the laptop against the wall, to run home and smash it against his stupid, immature brother’s head. To scream at the man, to tell him how lucky he was to find a woman who loved him, to have a beautiful kid, and to ask him how it feels to have fucked it all up.
But Paul doesn’t do that. There are people all around and if he hasn’t fallen apart in the privacy of his own home he sure as hell isn’t going to do it in front of strangers. He won’t. He won’t fall apart today. He sets his laptop calmly on the table in front of him, opens it up, and takes a sip of his drink. His fingers are shaking when he sets the mug down.
He rubs his eyes, suddenly exhausted, but he raises his hands to the keyboard anyway. He doesn’t even bother with the horror story. Closing the document, he opens a fresh, blank page, and begins typing all of the thoughts that he hasn’t had the nerve to say out loud. All of the things he’s wanted to say to his brother ever since Becca had called him in tears two weeks ago.
His fingers beat at the keyboard, forming sentences occasionally but mostly just screaming through caps lock and italics, random nouns and random adjectives. He can feel his heart rate picking up and his breath starting to speed up. He chews on his lip so hard that he can taste copper on his tongue.
A hand reaches out and taps the laptop. Paul pulls out of his caps lock-drunk haze to see Macbook watching him, his wide brown eyes concerned. Paul blinks once. Twice. He shakes his head like a dog out of water and looks back at his screen. It’s a mess. He scrolls up to the big red x.
Want to save your changes to ‘Document 1’?
When the page is closed he feels cleaner. He looks up at Macbook and sends him what he hopes is a reassuring nod. Macbook purses his lips, searching Paul’s face for some sign of what was troubling him, but now that Paul remembers that he’s still in public he just feels embarrassed, dropping his eyes and clenching and unclenching his fingers. Macbook’s hand slides down to rest gently on top of Paul’s.
No words. Just the hand. A reminder.
Paul takes a long, shuddering breath. He can feel the lump rising in his throat and wills himself to swallow it down. Not here. Not now. Probably not ever. When he’s got himself back under control, he nods to Macbook, turning his hand palm-up to give the other man’s a squeeze before pulling away. Macbook lets him. Then Macbook turns his eyes back to his macbook.
Paul turns his own gaze back to his PC, opens up the horror outline again, and begins to type.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂