Stella hefted the giant mousse-smeared mixing bowl up to the sink, but stopped short before metal hit metal. She swore to her self, silently grunting as she moved the bowl back to the stand. The bottom of the sink was a multicolor sea of vegetable peels, floating on two inches of mucky water. Garret better get his head out of his ass, soon, or I'm gonna make sure it's lodged there permanently, she willed as she cleaned the sink for him, again.
This wasn't how life was supposed to be, Stella lamented as she motioned through her tasks. Life was supposed to be enjoyable -- fresh, exciting. Every day should be an adventure, yet the monotony wore her down like a fingernail on an electric sander.
On the cusp of her 29th birthday, Stella was nothing more than a pastry chef. She had not written the Great American anything, her paintings all fell short of masterpiece. In between struggling to find the money to see a dentist and painting on Salvation Army bedsheets, her dreams seemed to be turning to dust. On top of that, there was a big gap in her life where family and friends should be.
Shaking the muck out of the strainer and rinsing the basin clean, Stella again lifted the heavy mixing bowl and begun her task. She could just make out the strains of her favorite Andrew Bird song from the commotion of running water and clanging stainless steel. Connecting with that small joy, she quietly mouthed along the words to the song.
An off-key whistling broke her moment, as Garret entered the prep kitchen. It was enough to bring Stella's irritation to the surface, again.
"Hey, buddy, ever hear of cleaning up after yourself?" she said in her tough-guy tone. This was her nature and the whole staff knew it was a silly affectation, but Garret bore the sharp end of her sword.
Garret glanced but did not stop moving. "Huh?"
"You left the sink filthy," she sighed as she turned back to the sink to rinse her dishes.
"Hey, sorry, but you know what a time crunch I'm in, chica." He said lightly, flashing a smile as he angled his knife over the radish.
"Yeah, the same time crunch I'm in, man." Her words were really harsh this time.
Garret set his knife down and turned to her. Though he was not usually a confrontational guy, he'd knew he couldn't stand listening the Stella crab the rest of the night. "Listen. My apps need to be ready in two hours. You have a couple extra hours before desert needs to go out. So. I. Win." It was only a half-joke and they both knew it. Pressed for time and weary, Stella ignored the comment.
It was, after all, only the busiest night of the year, also the most dreaded in the restaurant world. Valentine's Day -- the day of never ending two tops, special requests, and hyped expectations. It was a bitter enough day for someone unattached and alone in a big city, Stella mused, without having to spend one's day assembling heart shaped tortes and chocolate raspberry kisses.
It didn't help matters at all that the general manager had decided last minute to open the patio for the "special night", thus doubling their seating capacity. So the cooks and Stella were all left scrambling to make extra batches of everything.
Stella blew a frustrated breath out and tried to calm her mind. She rolled her neck and shoulders while she worked, willing the stress to leave her. All that came to a screeching halt when Garret popped her CD out of the player and replaced it with one of his own. Before she could say anything, he quipped, "Sorry, chica, but I need something that will keep me moving."
Stella fumed silently. Garret had always gotten under her skin, today was no exception. She hated the way everyone excused his little messes, his need for control. Just because he was a culinary genius with social charms and chocolate brown eyes didn't mean he should get special favors. She hated that he was so good looking, and the way that the waitresses were always fawning for his attention. She hated the way he was unflappably confident, like he'd never made a mistake in his life. She hated the way he was inconsiderate -- like leaving a dirty sink, or knife, or cutting board, for another person to clean. Most of all, she hated that, despite all this, her knees went all gooey when their eyes met. Okay, maybe hate was too strong a word...
It was purely a physical attraction and something she would rather die than admit to. But the fact that she couldn't control it, that really pissed her off.
"What, no fight?" Garret poked fun of her when it was clear she had let the hostile music take-over go.
"You want a fight? You better be sure of that before you egg me on, because putting a fist in your face sounds really satisfying right now," Stella said. Her tone was so serious she surprised herself -- she was a short, shy girl who had never been in a fight in her life.
Garret just chuckled. "Sweetie, if you need to, I'll give you a free swing. Sounds like you need to get some frustration out. After shift, of course."
Stella's cheeks burned red but she was careful not to let him see it. "You're on," she closed the conversation, but immediately after the words left her mouth, she regretted them. She'd backed herself into a corner she didn't know how to get out of.
Stella's mind scuttled as she piped pink rosettes. How can I back out without sounding like an ass? That was probably Garret's intention, anyhow. If I ignore it, he will too, she reasoned, and quickly put the event out of her mind.
* * * * * * * * *
After the grueling fourteen hour shift, the last task of the night -- mopping the floors -- seemed to take every last ounce of energy Stella had. That day represented the epitome of everything she hated about restaurant work -- understaffed, overworked, disorganized and frantic as all hell. She knew then it was time to start looking for a job, but the details on that could wait. All she needed for the moment was a chair to sit in, a stiff drink to sip on, and a cigarette to smoke.
The best thing about her job, for Stella, was that she lived hardly four blocks away. Thus, she was able to walk home, change out of her chocolate-and-flour stained chef jacket, and hop in the shower just long enough for the hot water to rinse the ick off of her. As she dried off, she considered just staying in with a book, and she probably would have, if she had whiskey and cigarettes in the apartment. Since she didn't, her decision was made to go to her favorite bar -- a dark and hidden dive bar with a great juke box.
She made a pit stop at the mirror. As a rule, she kept her grooming to a minimum -- her short black waves she wore loose and wild. Her skin -- the color of creamed coffee -- was flawless, she wore no make up. Unlike most pretty girls, she was not fixated on her looks and was not even fully aware how attractive her full lashes, crystal blue eyes, and strong cheekbones were. She had been a very awkward looking teenager, and still saw herself that way. Her 5'2" frame made her feel short and dumpy. In truth, she was neither thin nor heavy, with nice round breasts and a very animated rump.
Stella through her coat over her favorite old jeans and a tight black sweater, and she was at the bar almost as quick as she was out the door. There was something about Hera's, comfortable like an old shoe, yet sultry like an opium den. It had no beer posters, neon signs or rabbit ear televisions you would expect to find in a dive. Just tall booths covered in red crushed velvet, dark wood once ornately carved, now smoothed with time, a lone pool table in the back room, and a sunken and secluded patio beyond that.
If Stella were really a bar person, she'd be at Hera's daily. As it was, the bartender recognized her, but didn't yet know her name or usual drink.
"What'll it be. Whiskey, yeah?" He guessed.
"Maker's. Straight. And a pouch of Bali Shag." Stella slapped a bill on the bar and pulled out her sketchpad. She had been in a bit of a creative slump, lately, but she liked to keep pen and paper around, just in case. Sure enough, her first sip of whiskey and she felt the tension drain away. She flipped open to a fresh page and began.
She never knew what she was going to draw when she started doodling. Her aim was to allow it all to come from the moment, and some days her strokes were strong and bold, or wispy and airy, or shaky and broken. Today, her first few movements were waves of energy, a growing pulsation. She knew as soon as she begun that this drawing was going to be a solid one.
"Hey, chica, you never came to collect your freebie," Garret's voice jolted her back. Stella wanted to cry. The crew never came to Hera's. What was he doing here?
"Right here, right now?" she asked, suddenly ready to punch him.
His grin was broad enough to bring out his infuriatingly cute dimples. She really did want to punch him. "Finish your drink, and let me warm up with one, too," he climbed into the barstool next to her.
Like a balloon popping, Stella lost the will to violence as quickly as she'd found it. It really wasn't in her nature. She reached for her sketchpad, but his voice stopped her. "You don't have brass knuckles in you bag or something, do you?"
"No, I find that when I carry my murdering chainsaw, I don't really need them," she said dryly.
He looked at her and grinned. "You sure clean up good, missy," he affected a redneck drawl. She didn't know what to make of that, so she ignored it, and tried, once again, to reach for her sketchpad.
"You sure do nurse that drink. Now man up, chica, and let's get this over with," he said and tossed his drink back.
Stella exhaled sharply. "I'm not going to punch you, Garret."
He spun his barstool to face her directly. "Yes, you are. You've been a stick in the butt towards me since day one, and I don't need it, work doesn't need it -- you don't need it. So this is the deal. You punch me, once, as hard as you can, and then we can be happy shiny co-workers, okay?"
Stella sighed. She also closed her eyes, because she couldn't really concentrate with him looking at her. "Okay, fine, I've been a bitch. I admit it. I am a bitch, a bitter, disgruntled witch, and you've bore the brunt of it, all because you do stupid little inconsiderate things that I get way too angry about. You are God and I am but a speck of dust," she said the last without sarcasm, but resignation. She slung back the last of her drink. "And since I don't even know how to punch you're off the hook."
Garret softened. "Are you just upset because your not out with your roommate tonight?" Garret, like most of the staff, thought that Stella's roommate was also her girlfriend.
Now Stella was truly baffled. "Nooo, she's out with her boyfriend tonight," she said in the voice she reserved for only those wearing a straight jacket. Then it clicked, "wait, you thought that Katie and I...?"
Garret shrugged sheepishly. "She's, like, the only person you ever talk about," he said.
"She's, like, the only person I know in this city."
"Sorry," he said. "Can I get you another drink?"
Stella shrugged. "Sure."
"You really don't know how to punch?" Garret asked.
"Does that really surprise you?"
"Honestly? No. But you have been a bitch lately."
Stella allowed her eyes to meet his for a split second. "I know. I'm sorry. I've been stressed -- past capacity." She picked up the cigarette she had rolled earlier. "I'm going to go smoke this now."
"Can I join you?"
She really wanted to say no. She came to the bar to unwind, and Garret Harrison was still just about the last person that could help her with that. But since he was big enough to extend the olive branch, she supposed it should be extended back.
The unseasonable warmth of the day had not lasted into the night, and the back patio was empty. Stella zipped up her coat and wished she'd brought a scarf or hat. She lit her cigarette and took a deep drag.
"You don't ever smoke at work, do you?" he asked, pulling a Camel from his pack and lighting up.
Stella shrugged. "I've got this work ethic thing. Can't shake it." As soon as she said it, she realized what a bitch she sounded like. "I don't mean... I mean that I have too much of it, not that y--"
He cut her off. "I understand. I was just saying because it's good that you can go so long without one."
This was weird. They couldn't talk if they weren't fighting, Stella realized, and wished once again that she was alone. "Why aren't you out tonight?" she filled the air with her question because the air needed to be filled.
"This doesn't count as "out"?" Garret asked.
"I meant -- never mind." Stella took a nervous drag of her cigarette.
The silence fell between them. "Let me teach you how to punch," Garret said.
Stella looked up at him, utterly confused.
"You should know how, if you ever have to."
"I think I can get by on my wits," Stella said.
"Probably. But just in case. I mean, I may get out of line again, and you might want to make good on my offer."
Stella grinned lopsided. "Fine, okay. Teach me."
"Okay, first you make a fist. You want the point of contact to be the knuckles of your index and middle finger, so that's what you're aiming with. And the trick to getting power behind the punch is to use your whole body." He showed her the stance, and the motion of the hips, and the follow through. His lean, muscular frame was also very graceful. There was a power to his movements that had her mouth watering, which she quickly washed down with a sip of whiskey. "See, simple. Now you try."
Feeling foolish, Stella copied his stance and curled her hand up into a tight fist. Like a spring unwinding, she twisted and threw her arm up at the imaginary foe.
Garret chuckled softly. "Very peppy," he teased. "A little practice and you'll do just fine."
Stella shook her head, done with punching practice. She tossed her cigarette into the ashtray. "I'm cold, let's go in."
Garret didn't argue that. Inside, Garret pulled out the barstool for her, and she felt a little shiver go through her. Was he...? she wondered. No way.
"Look," she spotted the clock excitedly. It was after midnight. "It's officially over! This round is mine," she said and signaled the bartender.
"Better not let Cupid hear you talk that way, missy, or no poison arrows for you this year," he teased.
"Damn, and I've already screwed my chances with Santa, too."
Garret took a long pull from his glass. "I can't even remember my last good Valentine's."
"You wanna hear about my best Valentine's, ever? I was nineteen and past the one year mark on my relationship with Jared. He came home from work early two bottles of Strawberry Hill Boones Farm, and a VHS copy of Can't Buy Me Love, and a very tacky piece of lingere," she said with a smirk.
Garret chuckled with her. "I'm sorry, but I really don't want to hear about your worst."
Her smile disappeared. "No, you don't."
Garret let the gravity of what she didn't say sink in. He was at once a clown and a philosopher; that was what was so maddening about him. "Last year," Garret said, "I got my arm twisted -- and I do mean literally twisted -- by my brother to take out a girl from his office. He swore up and down that I'd like her and we'd have a great time, promising me that she was smart and beautiful and all."
"Well, no, I don't know. She was beautiful in a lacquered kind of way. Smart I'm not so sure. She was really, really eager, though, and tried to impress me by agreeing with everything I said. It was like she was trying to anticipate what I would like and do only that, you know? So we're at this intimate little Italian place, and we've just been served our soup, and she starts making all these innuendos about what she's gonna do to me after we get back to my place -- as if I've already invited her. And she'd being pretty crude and obvious about it, too -- she's molesting her soup spoon with her tongue." Garret mimes the molestation with his water glass and gives Stella a fit of giggles. "And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I don't even want to shake this woman's hand at the end of the night, and I really want her to stop molesting the spoon, so I tell her -- really politely -- that I'm not interested in her that way, but I'm happy to be her friend and share a meal with her. And I thought I was being mature and responsible by being up front, but guess what she does?"
"No, worse. She stands up, dumps a bowl of soup into my lap, and announces loudly for the whole restaurant to hear, in this false Southern drawl, "I am not that kind of woman!"
Stella smirked. "What'd you do?"
"I looked her in the eye and said, 'Try telling your poor spoon that.' Then I went to the bathroom to clean up. She was gone when I got back."
"Okay, not bad. But I think I can beat you. So I'm dating this really sweet hippie guy, and he says that the best way we can express our love for each other is to give our love back out to the community.
"He signs us up to volunteer at a soup kitchen on Valentine's Day, and so far I'm game. We are handing food out to a line of people -- Dave's handing them a plate of lasagna, I'm handing them a bowl of pudding, right? Well, the first guy comes up, this really gnarly old dude with one eyes half swollen shut who smells like he hasn't bathed in a week. And Dave hand's him his plate of lasagna and says, 'I love you'." She mimics his sincerity and puppy dog eyes.
Garret chokes on his water in his laughter. She gives him a minute to recover.
"So this guy who smells like rotten garbage looks at Dave, kind of pissed off, but he just grunts and turns to me to get his pudding. I'm still trying not to laugh, but I manage to hand him the bowl and next thing I know, I hear Dave say 'I love you' to the next person in line. This guy looks like he wants to take a swing at Dave so I kinda nudge him, and then he nudges me when I get away a bowl of pudding without saying anything.
"Don't you have something you'd like to say to this man?" Dave asks me.
"Uh, enjoy?" I say. The guy I'm trying to say this to is already walking away, mind you, and there's a line of hungry people waiting. But Dave is oblivious, and he says to me, 'I thought we were supposed to share our love with the community today!', and at this point the guy who's just gotten a plate of lasagna looks all freaked out and hands it back, and Dave's shoving it back and saying 'I love you, we love you,' over and over."
Garret had a deep belly laugh, a sincere warming sound that shook his whole chest. It took him a minute to gather breath. "What did you do then?"
"I had to leave. I handed Dave my stack of bowls and told him that he could love everybody twice. He broke up with me the next day."
"What a lousy holiday," Garret mused.
"Cheers to that." We clinked glasses
"LAST CALL," the bartender chose that moment to shout, he was close enough to hurt their ears.
Garret's eyes darted from Stella, to the bartender, and back again. She was fidgeting with her mostly empty glass. "I'd better get home," she said.
"Let me give you a lift," he said, grabbing his coat.
"Nah, I live in the neighborhood."
"I'll walk you home then," he said, and immediately recognized the skeptical look in her eyes. "As a thank you for not punching me," he said.
"You really don't h--"
"TSST," he made the Dog Whisperer correction sound.
Stella recognized it. "Are you being calm assertive?" she asked with a cocked eyebrow.
"Good girl," he said. "Come, Stella, come," he called as he walked towards the door.
She did follow, but only so she could kick him in the shins once they got outside. "Hey, I said you could punch me, I never said anything about kicking."
"The rules have changed," Stella announced, and kicked him once more.
"You're drunk," he observed.