“So I stopped in the middle of the gymnasium and smiled at him—not my courtesy smile, but my real one—and he just walked by.”
“Maybe he didn’t see you.”
“He definitely saw me—and don’t get me wrong, I run into guys all the time who’ve seen my vagina and pretend not to know who I am. Things don’t work out and that’s fine. But I paid this guy.”
Josh’s mouth turned up at the corners. “Maybe he was busy. Maybe he didn’t want to mix business with pleasure. I’ve seen you avoid students when we’re out.”
“That’s different, and I only ignore the brats, or their fathers if I’m not wearing a bra.” Josh shook his head but I pushed on, eager for him to see my point. “Shouldn’t there be a certain level of public acknowledgment when you’ve seen a person’s genitals?”
Josh looked at me with the expression he uses when he’s hoping I didn’t just say something but he’s pretty sure I did. “Oh my God, Hazel.” But this time his smile was too big to bite back. “So what did you do?”
“Nothing,” I said, shoulders slumping. “I guess that was a pretty anticlimactic story.”
“Not really. At least I know next-day protocol if we ever see each other’s genitals.”
“Which we won’t.”
“Which we definitely won’t,” he agreed, and then turned toward the sound of raised voices.
Kota was walking toward us, hands in front of him as he finished zipping up his pants.
You have got to be kidding me.
“So that’s it? You’re just going to walk away again?” Kenzie stumbled a little as she crossed the deck behind him, the boat lurching on the uneven water. Her hair was a mess, her life vest unfastened and twisted around her torso. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what they’d been up to. “By the way, I faked it.”
Kota stopped, slowly turning to face her.
Josh let out a low, sympathetic whistle.
“Didn’t sound like it back there,” Kota said.
Josh stepped away from the railing. “Everything okay here?”
Kenzie looked ready to spit fire, and got close enough to poke Kota with a finger to the chest. “Like I said, faked. You probably couldn’t tell the difference because you’re so used to hearing it.”
Kota knocked her finger away. “This is exactly why I stopped calling. You’re way too much work.”
The next part happened kind of fast. McKenzie lunged for Kota and Josh tried to step between them. It was a blur of life jackets and me shouting about rope and death traps, just as the boat lurched upward. I ended up on my ass and when I stood again and looked around, Josh was gone.
“He fell in the river?” Mom stares up at me, her breakfast abandoned on the plate.
“Yeah. He was wearing his life jacket and they were able to get him out, but he hit his head on one of the steel poles as he went in.”
“Oh my God. Is he okay?”
“I’m fine.” Josh walks slowly into the kitchen, a new angry bruise the size of a strawberry across his forehead. Winnie trails guiltily behind him. “Just a little slow to start this morning. And in case you were wondering, it’s hard to sleep with a sixty-pound dog on your chest.”
“She loves you,” I say.
He looks at me with a tired but barely restrained smirk. “Her love is about as suffocating as yours.”
I smile brightly at him from the other side of the island. “You say the nicest things.”
Mom pulls out a chair. “Josh, honey, sit down. I brought breakfast and Hazel was making coffee.” To me she adds, “Are you finished giving him concussions or shall we prepare for a third?”
I move to object but Josh speaks before I can. “I’m fine, really,” he insists, but sits anyway. “Just glad I showered last night before I went to bed. Who knew the river smelled so bad?”
I reach around to set a plate in front of him, and press a careful kiss to the bruise-free side of his head. “I think it was less the river and more the fish-soaked blanket they wrapped you in after pulling you out.”
Having learned a lesson about letting our inner circles cross, for date three we cast a much bigger net—so to speak.
The Sunday after our disastrous outing with Kota and Kenzie, I meet Molly on the bus to the farmer’s market, where I buy a paycheck’s worth of produce to cook a fancy thank-you dinner for Josh for letting me stay with him the past two months. Although Molly is a random stranger, she is also gorgeous, and a sales rep for a local organic cosmetics company. I’ll admit to having a slight ulterior motive here: Molly is friendly and was as charming as one can be during a single sixteen-minute bus ride across the city—so yes, I do think Josh will like her. But Molly’s winged liner is also perfect, and even if things don’t work out between her and Josh—hey, I can at least pick up a few makeup tips at dinner, right?
According to Josh, my date—Mark—is a former client of his, and Josh has nothing but great things to say about him. Apparently Mark is tall and good-looking and a genuinely great guy. They haven’t seen each other for a while, but Josh is sure we are going to hit it off.
Turns out, Josh is right about all of it: my date is tall, good-looking, and we definitely hit it off, but there is one tiny surprise …
Mark is early in transition into Margaret, and thought she was being set up with Josh’s male roommate.
Turns out, Josh called her from his car and the reception was a little spotty along the way. Margaret made sure to clarify that Josh had heard her explain that things were a little … different these days, but with Josh’s Bluetooth cutting in and out and clueless to the details he was missing, he assured her with a “Yeah, definitely. I’ll text you with the time and place,” and ended the call.
It might not go entirely according to plan, but we do have a great night and my winged liner has never looked better.
My apartment is ready a couple of weeks before school begins, during the very last humid gasp of summer.
As happy as I’m sure Josh is to get me and Winnie out of his clean living space, I think he might almost miss us.
I say this because by the last day I think even Josh was surprised by how normal it was starting to feel to live together. Loud? Yes. Chaotic? Absolutely. But also: comfortable. Dare I say easy?
On a typical day, Josh would drag himself out of bed, Winnie trailing sleepily behind him, to find the cup of coffee I’d poured for him on the counter. I would cook some variation of burnt breakfast food, and we would talk as we ate, text all day, and then come home, eat dinner together, and fall asleep watching TV. It was as close to being in a normal relationship as I’ve ever been. I think it’s been good for Josh, too: the name Tabby hasn’t been brought up in weeks.
I’ve always loved my apartment and living alone, but as I walk through the freshly painted door and stop on the new wood floors to survey what they’ve done, it’s impossible not to notice how empty it feels.
Winnie seems to have reached a similar conclusion. Sniffing a path through the doorway she does a quick circle of the front room before stepping outside again, emitting a heavy sigh, and then flopping down on the mat.
“I know what you mean,” I tell her, making my way inside and dropping my bags on the newly delivered couch. Other than this, there isn’t much furniture. A lot of it was ruined when the pipe broke, and most of what could be salvaged was old and not really worth saving anyway. Like every twenty-something I know, I ordered this new one at IKEA, but it seems a million miles away from the soft, worn-in leather in Josh’s living room.
Winnie is reluctant to admit that this is where we’ll be staying. Even after I coax her inside she insists on camping out near the door. Stubborn. I unpack a few things and get the rest of the animals situated, put new sheets on the new mattress and inspect the updated bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets. With nothing more than pet food in the house and no real desire to rectify that tonight, I order dinner and work on untangling the box of cords and hooking up the TV again.