If Nathan wanted to know where I was, I was thinking, he could come and look for me. He couldn’t obligate me to sit at a table with that man when he was the one who accepted the invitation. I’d told him to decline but Mr. One was persistent, Nathan said, and his wife Tyra missed seeing us. The sun hadn’t quite set and I was headed home on foot, fifteen minutes still walkable for me and better to be in the open air than to breathe the hot air from that man’s mouth. He alone chose the table where we sat and right away he gave the server his cocktail order, which neither the server nor Nathan and I had ever heard of, though Mr. One claimed it was becoming popular and the server should know how to make it and would he mix the drink for Mr. One himself? I’d warned Nathan on the way to the restaurant that I wasn’t up to another evening of Mr. One’s barrage of opinions. Nathan suggested I deal with him by reminding myself I didn’t want to go to prison. I told him he should take my knife and fork away from me. I’d eat with my spoon.
As we listened to Mr. One, Nathan discreetly lifted my knife and put it on the far side of his plate. I then set my fork on the other side of my plate so Nathan could reach it. He picked it up also. Mr. One blinked at the maneuver yet did not comment, preferring to continue his monologue in which he disparaged various people, asking what some of the men saw in their wives or what some of the wives saw in their husbands and criticizing people for donating to organizations that, in his mind, had plenty of money without additional help from others. Tyra tried to break through his wall of words, and he held his hands up between them and said he’d told her many times never to interrupt him. What did she see in him? I wondered, and what did he see in himself? I interrupted Tyra’s interruption, objecting to his disparagement of a man who’d been a friend of mine since childhood. “I wish I didn’t have these thoughts and feelings, but I do,” he replied.
The appetizer Mr. One ordered for the table was brought, and he suggested we start. Nathan and I waved. We didn’t care for the appetizer, nor did Tyra. He dug in, complaining the crust wasn’t flavorful enough as he shook salt all over it.
“Look who’s being seated by the window,” he said. “The most boring man in town and his almost-as-boring wife. I hope they don’t come over here and try to bore us to death. They probably got married to cure each other of insomnia. All he’s ever done—”
I rose and left.
The wind behind me, I looked straight ahead, trying to forget Mr. One’s performance and cursing the sound of him in my head. Nathan rolled up beside me, lowering the window. “Would you rather walk?” I got in the car. “No need to explain,” he said. “He was unbearable and enjoying himself every second.”
When we were in bed later staring at the television, Mr. One called Nathan’s phone and left a message. He said he knew someone I could talk to about my rage issues. According to him it would probably take just a couple of visits to get me corrected. We should call him if we wanted the contact information.
I’d been having recurrent problems with a colleague I hardly knew named Hranicky. He kept sitting at the table in the staff lounge where I sat almost every day, the table I thought of as my table. I liked to plop down in the same chair with my sack lunch, eat my sandwich and read a book in silence, not making chat, not stirring up some contrived good cheer. My lunch hour, my time, my search for a modicum of peace in my workday. Other colleagues in the lounge had learned to keep their distance, but my distance from others seemed to be what propelled Hranicky toward me.
He sat down opposite me one day, eyes on my face. He had his own brown bag containing a sandwich.
“I hope you don’t mind if I approach the wall,” he said, smiling.
I didn’t smile back. Why encourage him to say more? He told me his name. He knew I knew his name and I knew he knew my name. I chose not to participate in the name exchange. He ate a few bites of his tuna sandwich, looking annoyed. I picked up my book.
“Would it bother you if I ask a slightly personal question?”
“Yes, it would,” I answered.
Hranicky took offense at my abruptness. He huffed. He soon finished his lunch, left the table and the lounge, his empty chair at an angle.
The next day Hranicky sat down again. As far as I could tell, he never peeked at me while he ate. He asked no questions and made no comments and quietly departed, replacing his chair this time. I could take no issue with what he did, but I suspected the second lunch would not be the end.
A couple of days later he appeared. He sat and began to eat, and after chewing up a bite he spoke.
“I get tired of listening to people’s grievances and opinions. They get angry and their anger drives what they think. Many of them never realize they’d see more clearly if they weren’t angry. Have you ever thought that?”
Was that supposed to be an icebreaker? Was he implying something about one of us or both of us? I rejected the idea of a one-word answer and of a multi-word answer. He chuckled at my silence.
“What are you reading?”
I held up the book so he could see the cover.
“Is it good?”
“I haven’t got into it yet,” I said, thinking this reply might cut off further questions.
“Have you lived around here all your life?” he asked then.
I imagined asking questions of my own. What made Hranicky this way? Was he expressing hostility and aggression? Did he have a history of being rejected in ways he experienced as humiliating? I restrained my urge to ask. If I did, he’d have a license to bombard me with any number of questions he was holding at bay. I stood and peered at him.
I rode the elevator down and went for a walk to clear my head. I spent my lunch hours out of the building for a few days, enjoying the change and fresh air but missing the reading time and the quiet.
My first day back in the lounge he was already there and halfway through his meal when I took my seat.
“Where have you been?” he asked, chewing. He paused. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
I wondered why he asked and what he imagined the answer would say about me. Did I want him using the information to form an opinion? I didn’t care the least bit if he had brothers or sisters. Did he expect me to shrug and ask myself what difference it made if he knew if I had brothers and sisters and how many and what my place was in the birth order? He wanted me to open the door to more questions. I could see his intention in his face, without understanding how or why it got there. Was it because I’d declined to answer his first so-called slightly personal question?
“Do you stay in touch with them?”
Was he thinking he’d manipulate me into saying I was an only child? Was I overthinking it?
“Why won’t you answer my questions?” he asked.
I didn’t want Hranicky sniffing around inside me, adding to his list of prying questions, and I didn’t see why he expected me to answer to him. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing, and eventually he rose and retreated.
He was at the table again the next afternoon, eating a frozen dinner he’d microwaved.
“This is actually not too bad,” he said with a smack.
As soon as I got settled he started.
“I’ve got some mental-health issues in my family,” he said.
Was this statement a provocation? Was he thinking he could use my curiosity about him to get me hooked into talking about his family, which could lead to him asking about me and my history? Did he imagine I might end up feeling a kinship with him?
“My parents both suffered from paranoia,” he said, “and lived at opposite ends of the house.”
I interrupted, holding up my hands and shaking them. His mouth opened as he stared at my hands. He picked up the plastic container that held his food and got to his feet.
“I don’t see why you find me so repulsive.”
He walked off, tossing the container in the garbage. I heard him rinse his fork, stick it in the dishwasher, and leave the lounge. I resumed eating, my jaws seeming to grind on his lingering presence.
Hranicky didn’t turn up for some time. I’d accepted that he was right to say I found him repulsive. Had he said that to make me feel sorry for him? Was he trying to maneuver me into an apology that could begin a conversation between us?
On a Tuesday following a Monday holiday, he sat across from me at the table. Had he been planning over the long weekend what to say?
“Have you had a chance to rethink things?”
I didn’t ask what he meant.
“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”
Had he rehearsed his questions in front of a mirror?
“If you knew, you’d wish you didn’t.”
I was sure I agreed with him, though it sounded creepy to hear him say it. I was tired of being tangled up in his mind and hated the way he’d spoiled the refuge of my table. I hurried through my food and left.
I considered staying away from the lounge, but I resented the thought of giving him that power over me. I returned without missing a day and saw Hranicky sitting at a different table. I took my place, and I could tell by the way he ignored me that he was angry.
Two days later, he sat at my table, no lunch in hand, and made eye contact with me as he sat.
“Do you see your silence as a kind of prison? Has it occurred to you that you alone can do something about that?”
Did he hope to trigger an eruption? I stared at him, which was as much as I was willing to yield.
He lingered, gazing back at me. Then he shook his head and pushed his chair from the table. He walked out, leaving the impression that he was gone for good.
Glen Pourciau’s third story collection, Getaway, was published in 2021 by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, The Paris Review, Post Road, and others.