By Elizabeth Charles
David from the coffee shop makes a little heart pattern in the foam on my cappuccino. That is how I know he loves me even if he can’t tell me, because our love is so secret and special that no one can know.
But still, this seems strange, because if he is in love with me, and if I come here every weekend my sister is working to watch him pump the espresso with his strong forearms so that he knows I love him back, it seems like he should probably say something.
Although he does say, decaf soy milk cappuccino for Emma! when he finishes the little heart shape and puts it on the counter. And then when I take it from him I say, thank you, David, and he smiles and says, have a good day, Emma.
But I know what he’s really saying, and it’s I love you.
David works every Saturday and Sunday. He’s in school, so he can’t work during the week. He hasn’t told me this, but he told my older sister, Rachel. She works in the coffee shop too. That’s why I can come here by myself, my mom says, because that way I’ll stay out of trouble. Otherwise, she can’t trust me.
When I go to the coffee shop I always sit at the same table. I like this table because I can see David’s hands as he makes the espresso behind the counter. His forearms are strong and his hands are quick. I like to think about his hands.
For example, what would they be like making a pie crust? How would they look frosting a cake? I think he would be very good at kneading bread with those knuckles. I think he would be very good at cutting out cookies. This is important because he tells me one day I want to own my own coffee shop and bakery, and I tell him he would be very good at that and he smiles. I ask him if he would still make decaf soy milk cappuccinos for me and he says yes of course. I don’t ask if he would still put a heart on my cappuccino because I know he would. If he were to frost a birthday cake or sugar cookies for me he would put little hearts on them too. I know that for a fact.
Another reason I know David loves me is that my coffee order is special and he never gets it wrong. David is always extra careful and triple checks. I like to watch him pour the milk into my cup. His hands move quickly and it comes out perfect every time. Sometimes, it is too perfect to drink. Sometimes, I sit and stare at it until it gets cold. Then I buy a new one and Rachel rolls her eyes at me when she takes my money and says honestly, Emma. Most of the time though, I drink it with a straw so I can slide it under the foam and very, very carefully suck it through my teeth and the heart travels down like a little elevator. I always stop before the straw starts to gurgle because I want the heart to stay perfect.
Alison is my best friend at school. We share a lot of secrets, like how my mom cries all the time and her dad keeps magazines with naked pictures of women in a drawer next to his bed. I tell Alison about David. I tell her about watching him make espresso. She says don’t be creepy, Emma. But she also says “ex-presso,” which is wrong, so I know she can’t understand.
The coffee shop is very busy on the weekends, so David doesn’t have much time to talk to me. I understand this. If he spent all his time talking to me, he wouldn’t have time to talk to his other customers and they might get upset. He does spend a lot of time talking to my sister. That annoys me a little. But I know why he’s doing it: he wants her to like him so that when he declares his love for me she will understand. Rachel can be very misunderstanding sometimes.
I bring a book to the coffee shop when I visit. I bring books that show him how smart I am and give him secret messages about our love, like Emma and Women in Love and Great Expectations, and I prop them up so he can see the title while I read. It’s hard to read books like that, standing straight up, so sometimes my hands get tired. My hands are not as strong as his, and sometimes they shake. I would not make very good hearts on his cappuccino. Sometimes this makes me very sad, but not everyone can be good at everything.
My father, for example. Your father was a good-for-nothing, my mom says, which also means that he was good at nothing. I try to think about what that must be like. I am very good at some things. I am very good at reading. I can read five-hundred-page books in a day. I turn the pages again and again and before you know it I’m at the end. I read very quickly this way. I go to the library every weekend because it’s close to the coffee shop and my mom lets me walk there as long as I look both ways. The librarian, Mrs. Philips, knows me well. When I walk in she says it’s good to see you again, Emma, and I say it’s good to see you again, Mrs. Philips.
Mrs. Philips is probably the nicest person I know, other than David. She asks me how are you doing and how is your mother poor thing and which book would you like to check out today. I think Mrs. Philips likes me because I am very careful with the books. I always make sure my hands are clean and never turn down the corners of the pages.
One thing I do not do very well is drink cow’s milk. My mom says my body is intolerant to dairy, which Mrs. Philips explains means that my stomach can’t digest it like a normal person’s stomach. I tell her I am not a weirdo, and she agrees, but says that sometimes one thing makes a person a little different which doesn’t mean better or worse but just different. It’s still confusing because baby cows can drink it just fine, but then Alison tells me that cows have four stomachs so maybe one of those is Tolerant to Dairy and that explains it. Alison knows a lot about cows because they’re her favorite animal. Knowing about cows is something she’s good at.
Sometimes David lets me come behind the counter to show me how to pour the milk when he and Rachel are closing the coffee shop and there is no one else there. He puts his hand on my hand and shows me how to make the milk frothy like a cloud. Then he helps me pour it into the cup. He shows me how to make the little dips to draw the shape, but I still don’t think it looks much like a heart. He tells me good job and it gets easier with practice and I think that if he keeps giving me lessons maybe that is how he will get brave enough to tell me he loves me. And then maybe he will kiss me.
I do not know if I would be good at kissing. This is important because Alison says boys like kissing. I ask her why and she says I don’t know. I ask Rachel if she has ever kissed a boy and she rolls her eyes and says of course and I say why and she says Emma, you’re such a weirdo and I still don’t know the answer.
But when I think about David’s lips, I get a sort of warm feeling in my stomach and all over, and my face blushes and I’m not sure why but I don’t think I should tell Alison or Rachel about that. I think maybe they would call me a weirdo. But I think I would like kissing David. I think I would like it a lot.
I know my mom loves me because sometimes when she is feeling happy she sits with me on the couch and hugs me and says it’s ok you’re not good at everything. I know she is right but it still frustrates me sometimes. For example, I wish I were better at heart beating. What I mean by this is sometimes my heart does not want to beat like a normal person’s heart. Sometimes it gets tired and would rather stop beating for a while. I understand because sometimes I get tired, like when I walk to the library from the coffee shop and Mrs. Philips sees me, and she gets me a glass of water and tells me to take a load off. Rachel says that when I was a baby my heart decided to stop beating for a while. She says my face turned blue. She says I was dead for a whole ten minutes. I tell Mrs. Philips and she says that’s not possible, but I’m alive aren’t I so I guess it is. I ask my mom why I have a broken heart and she says oh honey and Rachel says mom’s brain was sick when she was pregnant and the doctors didn’t know the pills would hurt you and I ask sick like now when she’s sad all the time? and Rachel says yes.
David gives me a new heart every time he makes me a cappuccino. That is why I know he loves me, even though sometimes he kisses my sister. For example, sometimes I see him kiss my sister in the back room of the coffee shop after everyone is gone except me. Sometimes Rachel sits on the counter and he puts his hand under her skirt and then kisses her really hard like he’s trying to suck something from her mouth, and then their bodies are really close together and she says oh David and he says oh Rachel and they breathe really hard, like how I do when I take a long walk. Sometimes they make sounds like they are in pain except then they smile and he tells her you’re beautiful and she tells him I love you and he says I love you too Rachel and my heart hurts and I think maybe it’s breaking like the time I turned blue.
But it only stays broken until the next day when he says decaf soy milk cappuccino for Emma! Our hands touch and he smiles and I forgive him because someday he will be good at loving me but just not yet.
A person cannot be good at everything. But I want to be as good as David at making cappuccinos. I want to be as good as Rachel at kissing. I want to be as good as Mrs. Philips is at being nice to people. I want to be as good as Alison at knowing about cows.
Mrs. Philips says it’s important to know our strengths. One of my strengths is that I am very good at drinking coffee. I am very good at making sure the heart stays perfect all the way down to the bottom. This is maybe what I am best at.
Elizabeth writes fiction and teaches undergraduate composition and creative writing at Arizona State University, where she is currently pursuing an MFA. In 2017, she was a recipient of the Virginia G. Piper Global Residency Fellowship. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her husband and two small dogs.