Flash Fiction: Surface Tension by Thea Boodhoo

Miranda, 22, has dyed her short hair blue. Today she wears an off-white tee with a picture of a cat, which she would say was ironic if anyone asked. Her boot-cut jeans are too long for her, and the frayed cuffs drag on the floor, collecting coffee grounds. Over it all hangs a black apron, just ill-fitting enough to let the cat peek out.

It’s not her first job and she thinks she’s as experienced as she lied she was on her resume. It pays minimum wage with afternoon tips. She is a beginner at other things—cooking, Photoshop, love—but she is an expert at foaming milk.

He walks in. He works upstairs and usually comes in through the lobby entrance, thin and dark-haired, with thick-framed glasses and a close, clean shave. Sometimes he comes when it’s slow and lingers. In those quiet hours, they talk about artists they both like or science fiction they’ve been meaning to read. The more obscure, the better. They’ve played the game for weeks, trying to impress each other, like bowerbirds, with intellectual objet d’art. They are both impressed.

Right now it is not slow, and there will be no conversation, but she knows he’s noticed her behind the counter. She doesn’t have to look up, doesn’t have to wave and smile, doesn’t have to meet his eyes. She just knows.

There is a large, impossibly heavy machine between them. It occupies the counter, centerpiece to syrups and cups and coffee beans. His side of it is flat, dark, textured appropriately for an industrial commercial machine. It bears a logo. She doesn’t realize it now, but she’ll forget the logo almost immediately after being fired from this job ten months from now. What she will remember is the view over the top of the machine when he’s standing behind it, like he is right now.

Her side of the machine hosts an array of steamer nozzles. They are long, thin, hard, each with a head that spews white, hot steam.

She pours the soy milk before he even asks. It is cold, refrigerator-cold, cold enough to fog the surface of the steel pitcher she pours it into.

“Triple soy latte?” She asks. Their eyes meet for the first time today. He smiles, surprised, then nods approval.

Inside, she suddenly feels warm.

She does not know this yet, but one night, weeks from now, she will lock the coffee shop doors and he will be there, outside, just leaving the office after a long day. They will walk together in the same direction for half her route, talking about cookware, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. When they get to California Street they will say goodnight, awkwardly, then laugh, then go their separate ways. He will fall asleep thinking about her, next to his cat. She will fall asleep thinking about him, next to her boyfriend.

Once, long ago, Miranda categorized milk by suitability for Cheerios. Now she ranks it by the viscosity and endurance of the foam she can produce on its surface. Soy milk is the most challenging to create a satisfying foam with. She likes the challenge.

The steel pitcher conducts heat efficiently, communicating exactly when milk is hot enough to become a drink. She has handled — and spilled — hot things long enough by now to tolerate a burning sensation of some severity.

Holding onto something that burns her is a skill of will that will stay with her for decades, maybe her whole life. But she doesn’t know that yet.

She raises the milk to the steamer nozzle. It plunges deep into the center of the milk. She turns the steamer knob and feels the milk shudder under her palm.

The steamer releases a milk-muffled moan, then quiets as the atoms around it excite each other.

The steel beneath her left hand warms. Her right hand, the one holding the handle, lowers and raises the container slowly, moving the milk gently up and down around the steel shaft of the steamer.

The sound and the temperature are her cues. If it burns it will smell, and then she’ll have to throw it out and start over.

She has no idea now that one night, two years in the future, she will find his business card in a box she’s unpacking, and call him from her first flip phone. He will answer on his Blackberry. It will be an hour later for her than for him, but it won’t matter because they’ll both lose all track of time.

A layer of froth is starting to form on the surface of the milk. She lowers the pitcher so the nozzle head is just below the surface, where it warps the tension of the molecules at the edge of air. If it breaks the surface before she’s built sufficient foam, milk will fly everywhere.

Miranda does not know, as she foams his milk, that she will watch his cat sit by his door, waiting for him to come home, every night for three months. She doesn’t know she’ll be unable to tell the cat that its master is working on the other side of the world, and that she misses him, too. She can’t imagine right now that she will sit with a sigh next to his cat, on the cool, hardwood floor of his apartment, and believe that the cat is also hers, and the apartment is also hers.

He has made his way down the line and is near the register.

The foam is progressing. The espresso shots are ready. The milk is warm, but not yet so hot that she has to take her hand off the pitcher.

She is still unaware — disastrously unaware — that she will get into the habit of walking out when he raises his voice. Often, on days when they fight, she will stroll east down Market Street until she can’t walk any farther, and end up at the Ferry Building, where there is sometimes a street market. She is still fantastically clueless regarding the events leading up to a particularly bad fight, after which she will pause at a stall in front of the Ferry Building to purchase a plain silver ring for thirty-six dollars. The ring will replace a more expensive one that she threw out the window of a cab.

Her left hand is nearly burning. The steel pitcher is now a temperature that, before becoming a barista, she would have panicked at the touch of.

She can’t possibly know right now that on Thanksgiving morning, ten years in the future, she will scream at him to get out of her car, and he will obey. She will stay sitting in her driver’s seat, sobbing into her steering wheel, for half an hour before driving to her parents’ house alone.

In the instant before her neurons force the matter, she pulls her hand away from the steel and turns the steam off. His cup is waiting. He is waiting.

She wants to touch him. She never has before and just now, it occurs to her how she could do it without seeming like she tried.

She has no way of understanding how he will feel when he sits alone on the loveseat they picked out together, and she calls him, and they talk for hours about science fiction they’ve both read and art they’ve both made. She has no idea what will happen when they decide to try it all again, twelve or thirteen years from now, because after everything, they still can’t stop thinking about each other.

A latte is in her hand, and it is his.

She rings him up. He pays in cash. They make some small talk she’s forgetting even as she hears it.

She now exists only in her left hand.

It reaches for him, filled with change. His hand comes close to hers. It has its own electric skin. She lowers her hand just slightly, on purpose.

Thea Boodhoo is a writer in San Francisco, California. Her previous work has appeared in Art + Marketing, EARTH Magazine, Coreopsis: Journal of Myth & Theatre, and FAGAN: A Fantasy/Pagan Magazine. Thea enjoys writing fiction that explores the emotional space and texture of a moment in life, whether that moment is minutes or months. When she is not writing fiction, Thea creates ad headlines, interviews scientists and spends as much time outdoors as she can.

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