Hazel let the cold water drip off her long hair. It was the kind of drenched that only happened if you stayed out too long in a rain storm. She liked being caught in the rain, especially when it took her by surprise. She liked it most when it was incredibly inconvenient. Like this one day when she had forgotten her rain coat at home. That was not surprising. The day had been very warm. The sun had been shining down in a way that made her more worried about burning her pale skin than being drenched, but as she rode her bike to her first ever college class the sky opened up and poured down, torrents of tiny drops.
By the time her ten-minute ride was over, she was soaked to the bones. When she reached her classroom, the sun was shining again outside. For everyone else, the cool air-conditioning was a pleasant respite from the warmth, but Hazel, staring out of the window before her professor arrived, wished for just ten minutes to let that strong sun dry her drenched red dress.
The timing had been inconvenient. In a way, she found it romantic. Out of her comfort zone, with a soaking red dress sticking to her skin, but too dark to become transparent, with hair falling out of its careful braid and clinging to her forehead. She tried hard to focus on her professor’s words. She fought against the cold, as if it were something she could mentally overcome. Her teeth clenched together to keep from chattering. Her knees pressed together to keep from shivering.
Despite the cold she had gotten from the unfortunate air-conditioning, Hazel looked back on that day as a good memory.
“You dropped your pen.”
“Oh thank god. I would have been devastated to lose it.”
He handed her the pen that had fallen from where she had clipped in into a side pocket of her backpack. This was the first time he spoke to her. Hazel remembered the palm trees on his shirt. It was a plainly cut dress shirt, a few sizes too large, but rather understated, despite its size and odd pattern. They were strange things to notice and they only stuck with her because, together with his tousled hair, it crossed her mind at the time that he seemed like the kind of person who would have fit in well with her friends at home.
He had looked inquisitively at her then, but not asked her to elaborate. Instead he looked at his watch. He rushed down the side hallway they had just passed calling back to her “My name is Alexander.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing much, just reminiscing, I guess.”
Anna shook her head. Cold drops of water and mud stung Hazel’s cheek when they flew off Anna’s hair as they might off a wet dog. Hazel could not help giggling when she thought that at least Anna smelled better.
“What are you laughing about?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
She wrung out her hair, twisted it up, and clipped it back. This time the rain had neither taken her by surprise nor was it terribly inconvenient. Anna and Hazel had been sitting inside when the rain started tapping on the window of the apartment they shared. Anna had asked Hazel if she wanted to go dance in the rain, reminding Hazel of why she loved Anna in the first place. They had run down the hill to the river, nearly falling down in their haste and they danced when they reached the bottom, spinning on the field near the rushing water. Hazel kicked off her shoes and let the mud squish between her toes and Anna squealed in disgust and glee when she kicked off her own.
The field was a plain of mud from where the students played soccer at midnight and others sat and killed off the grass every lunch. The rain poured down and Anna slipped, covering herself in the mud and pulling Hazel down with her.
“Do you mind if I take a bath, Anna?”
“Sure, just let me shower quickly first.”
Hazel sat in the small kitchen, so that the mud would not drip on the carpet. She took off her clothing and threw most of it straight into the washing machine. Then she re-clipped her hair and waited for the sound of running water from the bathroom to stop.
Anna came out, calling to Hazel that she was done and leaving footprints of wet carpet in her wake as she strolled, dripping and wrapped only in a towel, into the living room. Anna never rinsed out the bathtub and like usual Hazel found long hairs clinging to the edge. It used to annoy her, but now she just took the nozzle off of the wall, rinsed out the bath and let steaming hot water slowly fill it. As she sat in the tub, she heard the beginning melody of the soundtrack to the French movie about the lonely girl and the man made out of glass waft out of the living room.
It was both their favorite movie, one of the reasons they had become such close friends. Hearing it reminded her of sitting in a courtyard outside of a dance school where she was volunteering. Back then it had drifted out of an open upstairs window and she had nearly started to cry. She had not seen the movie in a long time and it, combined with the ballet, was a sudden reminder of her childhood that made her feel so adult and lonely. Now it was part of their daily routine. Anna liked to have it playing in the background while she baked and painted.
“Wow, I have never seen anyone ever skip a stone more badly.”
“Hush, you don’t have to rub it in. Besides, I don’t think it actually counts as skipping a stone if it sinks right away.”
“Here, watch me do it again. It is sort of like throwing a Frisbee. The action has to come out of wrist.”
“Have you ever seen me throw a Frisbee? I can’t do that either.”
“Maybe you are just hopeless then.”
Alexander picked up a flat stone from the ground, rubbed it on the edge of his shirt, kissed it, and then pressed it into her hand. He came up behind Hazel and adjusted her posture. Then he told her to throw.
“It skipped once! It totally counts. I can do it!”
“Okay, I will let it count. Although it is still a little pathetic.”
“Pathetic my ass. That was super impressive!”
“Well, then you should try it again.”
“Have you never heard of quitting while you’re ahead?”
Hazel turned around, ran a few steps, and flopped down on the grass. Alexander sat down beside her in a much more dignified manner.
“What are you thinking about?” She asked, her eyes closed as she turned her head to the sun and watched her eyelids become first red, then yellow and blue.
“Not much. Just some homework I have to do.”
“You liar. That is such a cop out answer.”
“Well, that is a dangerous question.”
“Fine.” Hazel never got a straight answer when she asked that question, which is part of why she liked asking it. She did not push it with Alexander though.
Their class together last semester had ended and this semester they did not share any courses. She was just glad they still spent time together and the fact that it was a lot of time thrilled her. During that class, he had always asked the most interesting questions. They were the kind of questions that made Hazel want to kick herself for not coming up with them herself. They did make him rather unpopular with the professor and the other students though, both of which never had an answer for him.
Hazel opened her eyes and smiled up at him. Everything seemed more blue than usual.
“Hazel, have you seen my dress?”
“Which one?” she called out from the bathtub.
“The blue one. My favorite. The one I was going to wear today.”
“Have you checked your desk chair or your bed? Isn’t that where you usually put them out?”
She closed her eyes again, sinking back into the water. It had cooled off a bit by now, but she had used up all the warm water, so any water she tried to add would just make her bath colder. It was about time to get out actually. She opened her eyes and searched the bathroom for her towel.
“Hazel, it’s not here! Are you sure you haven’t seen it?”
The dress was hanging on a towel hook in the bathroom together with Anna’s fresh underwear and favorite necklace.
“It is here, Anna. Just a second and I will hand it out to you.”
She got out of the bathtub. Out of the cabinet she grabbed fresh towels, wrapping a large one around her and taking a hand towel to wrap around her hair. Then she unlocked the door. An impatient Anna was already outside of it. She slipped in past Hazel and started changing.
“What’s the rush, anyway?”
“I completely forgot the time. I am going to the theater with Julian today.”
Julian was Anna’s on again off again boyfriend of the past three years. They had started going out the second month of college and had been sort of dating ever since. Hazel heartily disapproved of him, but believed it was none of her business. She left Anna to her last minute preparations and retired to the kitchen where she put on a kettle of hot water for some tea.
“Hazel, we will be late.”
Alexander knocked at her room door. Anna had let him into their dorm room. They barely knew each other back then. Now he sat on the tiny couch in the dorm’s shared common room.
“She can’t decide.”
“Nothing looks pretty enough,” came Hazel’s muffled shout though the door.
“We are not in 18th century Austria, Hazel. We are just going to the opera. No one is going to judge you for not wearing a ball gown.”
Hazel stuck her head out of her room without revealing what she was wearing.
“Easy for you to say, with your fancy suit and … are you wearing cufflinks? Besides, you have been to the opera before. I haven’t.”
“Exactly. It’s not really that big of a deal.”
She came out slowly, like a timid deer. Turning once, letting Anna and Alexander observe her green velvet dress from all angles before facing them. Alexander smiled at her in a way she hadn’t seen before, slightly tilting his head and pursing his lips.
“Nothing. You look stunning.”
Hazel made an expression as if to prove him wrong.
“Shall we go then?”
As Hazel looked around the entrance hall to the theater, she quickly realized that she was dressed absolutely appropriately. Alexander offered her his arm and she took it and let him lead her to their seats on the Mezzanine.
The opera had been amazing, although she wished she had done a little more research on The Magic Flute beforehand. At first the story was easy enough to follow, but after the intermission, she lost any sense of what was actually happening. It did not matter. The set and costume design were beautiful. The music was amazing.
Hazel left the theater emotionally burned out, overwhelmed and elated. She did not want to speak. She did not want to return to her normal life just yet. She wanted silence and to let the experience sink in, uncorrupted by the dulling of memory, just for one evening.
“Do you want to go to the park?”
“It’s dark outside, Hazel. I am fairly sure the park is closed.”
“It’s not like they are locked.”
She started running. At first she ran slowly, her high heels getting in her way. Then she stopped, took them off and kept running again. She did not run often and by the time she reached the park she was out of breath. Alexander had kept a steady pace behind her. He nearly ran into her as she stopped suddenly at the gate. Hazel took Alexander’s hand. It felt rough and large in hers. There was something purposeful about it. She placed one index finger over her mouth in a shushing motion, grinned slyly at him and then walked into the park.
They took the first side path that lead into the wooded part. By the time they reached the open field, they were at a full run again and Hazel spun, arms outstretched and skirt twirling.
Alexander laughed at her, offering his hands and leading her into a little dance.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know. I just feel so full of life tonight. Why can’t I always feel this way, Alexander?”
“Because it wouldn’t be anything special if you did.”
“That’s true.” she said and flopped down on the hill to look up at the stars. Alexander lay down next to her. There was too much light pollution from the city to see many stars, but Hazel pretended. Later she would remember thinking that this was a perfect moment, lying here under the stars with Alexander, so natural, so relaxed, not wanting anything more than friendship and a good conversation.
“Tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. Anything.” She turned around to lie on her stomach and look at him. “How about a secret?”
“Yeah. Something no one knows.”
“Do you think I can trust you with that kind of secret?”
He paused a moment, thinking. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t have any secrets.”
“That’s a lie.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is. Everyone has secrets.”
“I don’t think I have any interesting ones though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for what you want, it needs to be something not everyone knows. Something a little juicy. Something that reveals something about me that you didn’t know, but confirms your opinion of me and doesn’t show a side of me you don’t want to know about. I don’t think I have any secrets that fit those criteria.”
“Those are your criteria not mine. Besides, what secrets do you have that could possibly ruin my opinion of you?”
He was silent. “I don’t know. Probably none.”
“Well, tell me anything then. It doesn’t have to be a secret.”
He looked at her a long time then. It felt so strange, so piercing. His look made Hazel feel bare, as if, purely by looking at her, he could see right through her. He could see everything she had done wrong, everything she was ashamed of. As if he could see how she had forgotten to feed her fish for a week straight and it had died. As if he could see how she never called her mother or how she still resented her older brother for all of the attention he got. It was unpleasant. It felt freeing.
“When I was eighth grade, we had a test in English. Mrs. Nihte was my teacher. She was my favorite teacher. She just had this energy, a kind of passion for teaching her subject that I hadn’t seen before, and she really cared. Anyway, for some reason, I hadn’t studied. I don’t even know why now. It is not like I could have been very busy in middle school, compared to now anyway. I had never cheated before. Perhaps that is why I was so bad at it. I was trying to copy off of the girl, Sara, sitting next to me. She was the best in the class. To make things worse, I also had a huge crush on her. Mrs. Nihte noticed of course, both my crush and my cheating. I hadn’t been able to see well, so I just tried to fill in the little Scantron bubbles as well as I could. When I finally gave up and handed in the test, Mrs. Nihte asked me to come in during lunch and I knew that she knew.
“The next class felt as if it went on forever while I waited for the bell to ring. Mrs. Nihte was sitting at her desk alone. When I came in, she didn’t even look up. She just said ‘Alexander, I hope I don’t have to believe you are the type of person who would cheat on an exam.’ She looked up. Took my test out of the pile held it up and tore it in half. Then she said. ‘It seems I have misplaced your test. You will have to come in and take it during lunch tomorrow.’ As I was leaving the room she called me back. ‘Alexander, if you want to win a girl’s affections. Don’t cheat off her or on her. I think she might like you. I happen to know that her favorite movie will be showing at the Athena movie house on Friday. Perhaps you will ask her to go with you.’
“I never cheated on a test again and Sara became my first girlfriend.”
“Mrs. Nihte seems like an amazing teacher.”
“Agreed. Not to be cheesy, but she taught me the value of giving someone a second chance. I don’t think I would have never cheated again if she hadn’t shown me she knew and given me the chance to redeem myself.”
“It is good advice about women as well.”
“It has worked for me, so far.”
Hazel was torn out of her memories when the doorbell started ringing simultaneously with the water starting to boil. Julian had a terrible habit of not letting off the doorbell until the door was opened for him. In her rush to make the terrible buzzing stop, Hazel spilled some of the boiling water on her legs, when she removed the kettle from the burner.
“I’m coming.” She yelled at the door and gave Julian an angry look.
“Anna, your darling room mate is using her charms on me again.”
“Just sit on the couch and wait for me and you be nice, Hazel.”
“You be nice, Hazel” Hazel silently mocked as she let ice cold water run into a dish towel and then pressed it onto her lobster-red skin.
It was still raining when Julian and Anna left. It rained all evening. As Hazel cooked some Ramen for herself, the drops were still tapping on the windowpane. She hated eating Ramen, but she didn’t feel like spending a lot of time to cook for herself, when she knew she would have to eat alone. Nothing made her sadder than eating alone.
It was moments like these, sitting on the couch watching an old movie and eating Ramen that made her want to call Alexander.
She had not talked to him since the night they had gone to the wedding together. In retrospect, she could see how that might have been confusing, but she had never noticed the way he held eye contact with her or how he touched her more than necessary. All sophomore year, Hazel had not read anything into his little motions, the way he always held the door for her and offered to carry her things. She had never considered that he saw her differently than she saw him. So when he had told her that one of the teaching assistants, who had shown Alexander the ropes when he was a freshman and with whom Alexander had grown pretty close, was going to get married and asked her to come along, she had not thought too much of it.
“Steven is getting married and I don’t have a date. I need a friend to come along with me. Do you want to come?” They were sitting on a low stone wall outside of their dorms, sipping on iced coffee from the little hipster shop on the way between classes and the residences.
“Just friends, right?”
“Well, can you dance?”
“Can I dance?”
“If I am going to go to a wedding, I will want to dance. Can you dance?”
“Can I dance? Please. Of course I can dance. I even took a few ballroom dance classes in high school and I have been in the Swing club here since the second week of classes. Steven is actually the one who took me there.”
“What surprises you?”
“I don’t know. I just never pegged you as the dancing type.”
He had gotten up and taken her hand. Upstairs, from one of the open windows, some pop song was playing. He took four beats to count the rhythm and then started dancing. Alexander’s hand rested in the small of her back, pushing her carefully into turns and twirls and steps she had not realized she was capable of. By the time the song ended and a rap song started, Hazel was out of breath.
“Okay, fair enough. Sure I will go to the wedding with you.”
The ceremony had been beautiful. The bride was elegant and a children’s choir sang from somewhere higher in the old church. In the row in front of Hazel and Alexander, an aunt of the bride was falling asleep. Her head slowly tilted forward and rolled back. Hazel and Alexander took turns using one of the fans, which the wedding party had provided in addition to the birdseed that would be thrown later, to poke the stately old woman in the back. Each time she would jerk up with a grunt, but by the time she looked back Hazel and Alexander would be fanning themselves and staring raptly at the Priest.
It was already fairly dark when Hazel decided to walk the grounds. Outside of the cottage, where the reception was being held, were fields. It was not long after she had started walking that the music and voices from the illuminated tent sounded faint and she sat down on a small bench under a weeping willow, watching the bride and groom each dance with their little cousins. This was her favorite part of any party. She loved sitting alone, watching the others. Hazel found there was a certain kind on loneliness she could only feel when there were over a hundred people close by, completely unaware of her absence. There was something beautiful in that isolation.
“Hazel, is that you?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just sitting here.”
He sat down next to her on the small stone bench. The bench had been meant for one person or two very familiar people. Their legs were touching, but she did not feel like she was about to fall off. They sat together in silence for a few moments. His company made her melancholy and solitude perfect and Hazel could not remember ever being any happier than at that moment.
That was until he leaned over to kiss her. She pushed him away and he nearly fell off of the bench, which suddenly felt very tight.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to kiss you.”
“What do you mean ‘why?’”
“Why are you trying to kiss me?”
“Why are you ruining this moment?”
“Ruining. Well if the idea of kissing me is so revolting to you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry Alexander. Don’t get angry at me. How much have you been drinking?”
“Why won’t you kiss me?”
“You know I don’t date.”
“You don’t date or you won’t date me?”
“What difference does it make?”
“It makes a big difference to me.”
“I don’t think I like this conversation.”
“Oh, you don’t like this conversation, Hazel. You don’t like it. It is always about you.” He spoke through clenched teeth and he was slurring his speech.
“Please Alexander, speak more quietly.”
“You know what, Hazel, no. It is about me. I deserve this.” He stabbed her collarbone with his index finger. She crossed her arms and clenched her fists.
“What do you mean ‘you deserve this’? What is ‘this’?”
“I am sick of being the nice guy.”
He tried to kiss her again and this time she pushed him hard enough to make him fall of his end of the bench. He got up and slapped her once, hard, across the face. Tears welled up in her eyes and she could feel her cheek sting. She gasped for air.
“Oh my God, Hazel. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking. It was a reflex. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Sure. Nice guy. I am going home. Do yourself a favor and go home too, before you embarrass yourself in front of anyone else.”
Alexander had driven her to the wedding in his car, so she called a taxi and told the driver that she would be walking up along the street towards him. Under the light of a lamppost, she took off her high heels and felt the gravel and the weeds beneath her soles. The gravel hurt and she cut her foot while walking along the road. Hazel had been walking for ten minutes when her taxi found her. She could no longer hear the music from the party and as she got in, she saw Alexander had taken her advice, as his car passed hers.
“Can you drive me to South Quad? And try to stay in view of that car.”
Hazel watched Alexander park and walk into East Quad, where his dorm was, glad to see that he had made it back safely. She paid her driver and gave him a generous tip. She was exhausted and glad to reach her own bed. Anna was still awake, reading by the light of a small table lamp.
“You’re back early. Anything exciting happen?”
“I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
Cinnamon, the cat, jumped up on Hazel’s lap, spilling her Ramen and agitating her burnt legs. She could hear her movie – some extravagant tap scene with the entire cast and all of the extras – while she sat on the edge of the bathtub, using the showerhead to run cold water on her legs. The porcelain pressed into her thighs. Cinnamon jumped in at her feet and drank the water as it ran into the basin. Hazel let the cold water drip off her legs.