Read an excerpt from my new romantic short story Ava, Sublime.
It isn’t always easy to know what you want and what you need.
Ava Novak pulled the first aid kit off the wall and opened it. Mismatched bandaids fell out across the counter, some of them getting wet from the puddle of water there. She extracted the can of burn spray, shook it, and pointed the nozzle at the lobster red webbing between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. She flapped her hand to make it dry faster and put away the kit. It smelled like aloe and chemicals. She squinched up her nose at it.
“Oh, excuse me.” Angela lay both of her hands against Ava’s back and waist and slid past her, into the drive through where they kept the Oasis machine.
“Everything okay?” she threw back over her shoulder to the sound of shaved ice falling into the blender.
“Yeah,” Ava mumbled. “It’s fine.” And she dropped her hand to her side.
Angela poured fruit puree and “ice cream” mix into the blender and pressed start, drowning out her response. Ava watched the red and white slush turn pink and spin. Then she spun on her heel and got out of there.
The Daily Grind Espresso Roast and Coffee Shop where Ava worked was quiet. It was a cold afternoon, almost dark outside, but the shop was warm from the roaster. One side of the cafe formed an L-shape with a pastry case and the espresso counter forming the stem of the “L” and the drive thru making up the leg. The rest of the suite was covered in matching black tables for guests to sit at. On the other side of the shop, vented into the ceiling, their small batch roaster surrounded by bags of green, unroasted beans. The floor was concrete painted brown and scuffed with age.
Ava banged her hip into the edge of one of those tables floating in a sea of concrete and swore, rubbed the place where it ached and dropped down onto a half empty bag of Mexican Terruño Nayarita. The beans shifted and sagged under her weight so that she slid to one side, elbows up on her knees and her burned hand hanging limp.
Beans crackled in the drum, rat a tat tat, like rain against the metal sides of the roaster. And everything smelled faintly of burning, though that was to be expected.
The cheap, magnetic timer beeped until she stood and punched the button. Ava sighed, pulled on a pair of work gloves and flipped the heat switch, opened a shunt on the side of the machine and listened to the beans pour into a second chamber where they were cooled by a blast of forced, ambient air and left to settle. When she was done, she dropped the gloves and tripped over a mostly empty sack of Sulawesi, sat down in the roaster’s chair. It was a ancient leather affair, salvaged from some government surplus sale, cracked and creaky and one of the rolling wheels always stuck. The arms didn’t fit under the low slung card table they used to package the beans and keep the roaster’s log.
Ava slouched down and kicked out her foot, making the chair swivel. It screamed under the movement and a young man paused on the threshold of the coffee shop. She could see the whites of his eyes as they swung over to her. She jerked her chin down and slid lower, until her butt was only just hanging onto the edge of the chair.
Her phone in her pocket buzzed. The movement made her skin tingle. Ava tapped her finger against the hard screen through her dark canvas cargo pants.
There was a series of unread texts on her phone and an email in her personal gmail account waiting for a reply. Maybe more than one, she hadn’t checked it in a couple days.
The door chimed and their only customer left. Then the shop was empty except for its employees: Angela and Giselle talking quietly in the drive thru, low enough that there was no chance for Ava to overhear them.
With mechanical fingers, she folded closed the top of a half pound bag of beans. It was a familiar motion, folding the brown recycled paper over and over and tucking the tabs underneath, to form a squat rounded square package of beans. She tore a sticky company label off of the roll and smoothed it across the surface of the bag and then she opened the accordion file they kept the names of all the coffees printed on plain white labels in boring Times New Roman. Ava had to think about it, to remember which coffee she’d been bagging before the timer dinged, before she touched the roaster without her gloves, burned her hand. It was the Mexican Pulp Natural. She found the correct label and affixed it below the Daily Grind sticker and stood the bag up in the milk crate at her feet alongside the half dozen identical pouches.
Across the shop, Giselle whipped off her apron and stuffed it into the milk crate behind the counter, and pulled on her jacket. She met Ava’s eyes and waved with a limp hand and a watery smile.
“I’m off,” she said.
“Do you work tomorrow?” Ava asked her.
“No, it’s Dani.”
“Oh. Well, have a good night.”
“You too,” she replied, almost too quiet to hear and tossed over her shoulder as she left like an afterthought.
Angela leaned the top half of her body over the front counter and sighed. It was such a large, heavy sigh that it shook her whole body, slight and childlike as it was.
“It’s so quiet,” she whined.
Ava stared. Her hand was numb from the burn spray, which was a small measure of comfort.
Angela jerked upright and said, too excited, “Can I bag?”
“Awesome.” Angela swung around the counter and hopped over to the roaster’s side of the cafe. She pulled a tube of shiny lip balm out of her apron pocket and smeared it over her lips, eyeing the white five gallon buckets full of roasted beans.
“You can do all of the French Roast I guess,” Ava said, gesturing to the correct bucket, “we need it for a special order. And then a couple bags of anything else thats labeled. You can put those on the shelf when you’re done.”
Ava gave up her chair, grabbed her scarf and hat and gloves and let Angela take over. The other woman seemed happy enough to do it. She hesitated though, dropped her things and grabbed an empty bucket, opened the bottom of the hopper and let the freshly roasted beans pour out. They were still too warm so she wrote down the name of the bean on a piece of tape, fixed it to the bucket’s lid and left it half on, half off of the bucket.
“Can you seal this one before you lock up? That should be enough time.”
“Thanks,” Ava mumbled and put on her winter things. She didn’t have a coat.
Outside it was drizzling and dark grey. The sun hadn’t quite set yet but the thick clouds made the hour seem far later than it was.
She climbed into her Honda CR-V and stuck the key in the ignition though she didn’t turn it on. She stared out through the wet windshield at the city lights blinking on below her. The Daily Grind sat on top of a low, artificial hill, a straight drop off to the shopping mall due west. In the summer it provided an unimpeachable view, orange and pink sky blazing through the shop’s huge bay windows. Now it was flat grey, a little smokey, almost as if the winter had drained all of the color out of the air.
A formless headache throbbed behind her eyes and across the bridge of her nose. Not even caffeine, too much caffeine really, enough to dull it.
Ava put her hand on the key, froze, thought about what she had to eat back at her townhouse and grimaced. She should go grocery shopping.
She had no desire to go grocery shopping. But her fridge would be empty and she’d eaten the last stale bagel out of the freezer for breakfast that morning. In all likelihood, there wouldn’t even be ramen in the emergency cupboard. It had been so long since she’d gone grocery shopping.
In her pocket, her phone vibrated again twice in quick succession. Instead of looking at it she started the ignition and popped the parking break, squealed out of the empty lot and turned right. There were too many cars on the road. Everyone trying to get home to their families, to cook their hamburger helper and their mediocre spaghetti and put their feet up on the ottoman while The Voice screamed in the background and a million Americans lethargically texted the hotline with their votes.
Ava stopped at a red light and hunched over the wheel, one elbow on her knee and stared out her windshield, everything blurry with raindrops. Her wool beret made her forehead itch but she resisted the urge to scratch, to rub at the brim until it left a red, raw mark against her skin.
Her phone rang while cars passed through the intersection in front of her. Ava pulled it out of her pocket and threw it across the cab. It bounced off the passenger seat and slid down into the no man’s land between the seat and door. The light ahead of her turned green and she stomped on the gas. The wheels spun before they caught and the Honda shot over the wet pavement.
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