She pushes away from the counter and gives me a guilty smile. “Okay. Sorry. I’m being too Hazel-y.”
I watch her wash the dishes and manage to clean up the kitchen quite capably while I pick at my breakfast. She isn’t pouting, and it doesn’t seem like I’ve hurt her feelings—she honestly just seems to have heard something in my tone that I didn’t intend. “What does that mean,” I ask, “ ‘being too Hazel-y’?”
Turning with a dish towel in her hand, she shrugs. “I tend to be too chatty, too silly, too exuberant, too random, too eager.” She spreads her hands. “Too Hazel-y.”
She is all of these things, but it’s actually why I like her. She’s entirely her own person. I reach for her wrist when she moves to leave the kitchen. “Where are we going mini-golfing?”
Hazel looks nothing like her mother, but genetics work in wild, mysterious ways, because I would never doubt for a second that she came from this woman, Aileen Pike-not-Bradford, as she’s introduced to me. She’s wearing a flowing skirt decorated with embroidered peacocks and a bright blue tank top, and not only does she have rings on every finger, her earrings brush the tops of her shoulders. She and Hazel dress nothing alike but they both silently scream Eccentric Woman.
Aileen hugs me upon greeting, agrees with Hazel that I’m adorable but not her daughter’s type, and then apologizes for Hazel’s painkiller email all those years ago. “I knew I should have typed it for her.”
“I still have it printed out.” I grin at Hazel’s complete lack of self-consciousness. “I may actually frame it for the duration of Hazel’s visit in my house.”
“A constant reminder of my charm?”
I take the golf club and a bright pink ball from the guy behind the counter. “Yeah.”
“Speaking of your home,” Aileen begins, “is my daughter trashing it?”
Hazel tosses her blue golf ball from hand to hand like she’s juggling it. A single golf ball. “I knocked him out with an umbrella last night.”
At her daughter’s proud tone, Aileen slides knowing eyes to me. “Be glad it wasn’t a frying pan, I guess?”
Given that the umbrella gave me a bruise the size of a baby fist on my forehead, I can’t really disagree. “She’s got quite a swing.”
We make our way to the windmill at the start of the course, and out of courtesy for our elder, let Aileen go first. She easily makes a hole in one: through the sweeping windmill, up and over a tiny hill, and down into the hole in the back corner.
It takes me ten shots to make it—so long that Hazel and Aileen are sitting on the bench by the little creek, waiting for me when I approach. Hazel has a handful of pebbles from the path and is trying to get one into the guppy statue’s waiting mouth.
“Are you a mini-golf shark?” I ask.
“If only it got me something useful.” Aileen laughs, and again, I’m reminded of Hazel. She has the same husky belly laugh that seems to come out of her as naturally as an exhale. These two women: laugh factories.
“Mom used to bring me here every Saturday,” Hazel explains, “while Dad watched college football.”
They exchange a knowing look, which morphs into a smile, and then Aileen asks her daughter for an update on the apartment. It’s a few weeks away from being move-in ready. I listen to them speak and marvel over how they seem to communicate in half sentences, finishing thoughts with a nod, an expression, a dramatic hand gesture. They seem more like sisters than mother and daughter, and when Hazel gives her mom crap about her boyfriend, I look over in shock, expecting Aileen to be scandalized, but instead she just grins and ignores Hazel’s needling.
Hazel and Aileen have the same wackiness with an undercurrent of unshakable confidence; people look at them as they pass, as if there is something ultimately magnetic about the two of them obliviously dancing their way through the course. I follow behind, registering how quickly I’ve become the straight man to Hazel’s clowning.
I end up being glad we didn’t put any money on this outing; Aileen cleans the floor with us. To make up for our bruised egos, she buys us coffee and cookies, and I’m treated to several amazing Hazel stories, such as the time Hazel dyed her leg hair blue, the time Hazel decided she wanted to play drums and entered the high school talent show after only two weeks of lessons, and the time Hazel brought home a stray dog that turned out to be a coyote.
By the time we get back to my car, I realize I haven’t really thought about Tabby for more than an hour, but as soon as the awareness hits, the sour twist works its way back into my gut and I close my eyes, tilting my face to the sky.
That’s right. My girlfriend was sleeping with another dude for most of our relationship.
“Oof,” Hazel says, looking over at me across the top of my car. “You just left the happy bubble.”
“Just remembered I’m an idiot.”
“So here’s the thing.” She follows after me, climbing into the car. “I know this Tabby thing sucks, but everyone feels stupid in relationships at least some of the time, and you have a better excuse than anyone. Me, I work to not feel stupid most of the time. I don’t always understand the best way to interact with other humans.”
I grin over at her. “No.”
She ignores this. “I tend to get too excited, I realize that, and I say all the wrong things. I have zero chill. So yeah, guys have made me feel stupid about a trillion times.”
She laughs. “This can’t surprise you. I’m a maniac.”
“Yeah, but a benevolent one.” I turn the key in the ignition, and we both wave as Aileen pulls out of her spot, a bumper sticker that reads NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON FOR PRESIDENT clinging proudly to the back of her battered Subaru.
“I realize that finding the perfect person isn’t going to be easy for me because I’m a lot to take,” she says, “but I’m not going to change just so that I’m more datable.”
Shifting the car into drive, I chance a glance over at her. “You’re awfully hung up on your position on the datable scale.”
“I’ve learned to be,” she says, and then pauses for a moment. “Do you know how many guys like to date the cute wild girl for a few weeks before expecting me to chill a little and become more Regular Girlfriend?”
I shrug. I can sort of imagine what she’s saying.
“But at the end of the day,” she says, and puts her hand outside the open window, letting the wind pass through her fingers, “being myself is enough. I’m enough.”
She’s not saying it to convince me, or even herself; she’s already there. I watch her pick up my phone and choose some music for the drive to my parents’ place and wonder whether that’s part of my problem: I used to think I was so together, but now the only thing I feel is a hollow sense of not enough.
It never occurred to me that meeting Josh’s parents might be something I’d need to prepare for. They’re just people, right? Emily’s mentioned that they’re super protective (particularly of Josh, since he isn’t married), but … whose parents aren’t? I know his mom is always filling his fridge with food, but that’s not unusual, either. Seriously, if it weren’t for my mom and her thriving garden, I’d probably have scurvy by now.
I remember Josh saying it was family tradition to bring fruit, so I make him stop at the store on our way, where I put together the largest, most fantastic fruit basket I can manage.
“You know, a couple apples would have been more than enough,” he says, closing his car door and meeting me in the middle of the narrow driveway.
I peer at him over the top of a particularly high pineapple shoot. “I want to make a good first impression.”
“You’re nuts. You know that, right?”
The basket starts to slip and I adjust it, sidestepping him just as he’s about to take it. “Listen,” I tell him, “I plan on giving the best man’s speech at your wedding one day. This is no time to take chances.”