I’m at the stage in the technology setup process where I’m whimpering and facedown on the living room floor when my phone chimes from the corner I threw it into not long ago.
Fondness squeezes at my heart but I push it away before I begin typing out a reply.
I think about that one as I look around the bright, clean living room. Empty walls, a stack of boxes that need to be unpacked, a disgruntled labradoodle. I suppose it could be worse.
I snap a few photos, including one where half my face takes up most of the screen, and another where a mass of tangled cords lies next to a sad, dark TV.
Because Josh is a caretaker, my phone rings almost immediately.
“Hazel’s House of Hedonism.”
“Do you want me to come help?” he asks, and there’s a feeling inside my chest. Victory, yes, because I was hoping he’d come over, but something else, too. Like warm rain, a warmer blanket. I really want to see him. And I mean, so does Winnie. Look at her. “I could hook up the TV while you work on other stuff.”
As a strong, independent woman, I should tell him no, that I’ll take care of it myself—which I would, eventually—but RuPaul’s Drag Race is on tonight and saying no would be both inefficient and inconvenient.
“I ordered dinner,” I say instead. More than enough for two, now that I think of it. “Winnie will be happy to see you. Maybe she’ll even stop sulking.”
“Let me shower and I’ll be over in twenty.”
“Deal. I’ll probably still be in this same spot when you get here so let yourself in.”
“Got it. Oh, and Haze?”
I smile into my phone. “Hmm?”
“Tell Winnie I miss her, too.”
After I help her move things into her new classroom, I barely see Hazel for days—which, given that she only moved out about a week ago, is oddly disorienting. I went from being in a long-term relationship to being single, and having my life turned upside down with a roommate of sorts, in a matter of days. You’d think I’d be glad to have my own space again and not have to worry about what someone is doing—or lighting on fire. You’d think I’d be ready to find some kind of new normal. And yet, you’d be wrong.
Who knew normal could be so boring?
Just like I’ve seen my sister do half a dozen times before, Hazel dives into this intense teacher zone, and I can’t exactly criticize her for being so focused. From what I can surmise in observing her bouncy bliss stapling borders to her bulletin boards, the beginning of the school year is better than Christmas and birthdays combined.
“I fucking love being a teacher,” she says over the phone just after the pre-first-day Back to School Night. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard quite the same enthusiasm from Em after one of these things, but Hazel is Hazel. She loves big. “I am a hot mess ninety percent of the time, but man, third graders are my jam.”
“I’m not surprised,” I tell her. “Like eight-year-olds, you also struggle when reaching for things on high shelves and remembering to use the bathroom before long car rides.”
A tiny unknown organ in me aches at the way we’re having such a familiar conversation over the phone, rather than across the couch.
The next day—Hazel’s first day teaching at Riverview—I am greeted by a constant high-pitched hum of noise as I walk through the doors. It sounds a bit like a swarm of bees, emanating down the hall from the cafeteria. Hazel’s classroom is number 12, so after waving at frazzled first-day-of-school Dave through the glass window of the principal’s office, and peeking in on my sister as she wrangles a chaotic blur of fifth graders, I head across the hall to the door covered in hot sauce packets and the words Taco ’bout a Great Class!
Through the little window, I can see her standing at the front of the room, watching while the class works independently, and am already laughing. This is Hazel—of course she’s wearing something like this. Her blue dress is cinched in at the waist by a belt decorated with red apples and brightly colored textbooks. I’m getting definite Ms. Frizzle vibes, a look I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be into, but one glance at Hazel’s long, delicate neck and the smooth gloss of her ponytail and … well, here we are.
She spots me through the glass, grinning widely before walking over—even though I’m waving at her to indicate I can wait until the class is in the cafeteria for lunch. Her eyes are scotch and flirtation. Her lips are a wild cherry red. Something inside me shivers.
“Welcome to the fiesta!” Wooden pencil earrings swing with the happy little shake of her head.
I hand her an apple and a cellophane-wrapped bunch of sunflowers. “I thought I’d catch you at lunch—I wanted to wish you a happy first day.”
She takes the flowers and hugs them to her chest. “You already did that when you texted me this morning!”
“Well, I’m glad I decided to be thorough or I’d have missed all of this.” I motion from her toes to the top of her head, where, incidentally, there’s a ceramic bookworm pinned in her hair.
She does a little spin. “You like? It’s my traditional first-day-of-school costume.”
“And to think my sister is just wearing a new cardigan. How’s it been so far?”
“Pretty good! No emotional meltdowns and only one tetherball incident at recess. The students are writing down their goals for the year. Do you want to come in and meet them?”
I’m in the middle of telling her no when she reaches for my jacket and yanks me inside.
“Class.” Twenty-eight sets of eyes look up from their papers and focus squarely on me. “I want you to meet my best friend, Josh.”
There is a combined verse of ooooh and one lone rebel who calls out, “So he’s your boyfriend?” followed by a chorus of giggles.
Hazel gives a very practiced tilt of her head and the room quickly quiets down. “Josh is a guest in our classroom, so we should be on our best behavior anyway, but he’s also Mrs. Goldrich’s brother. Let’s all welcome our new friend to our classroom.”
“Welcome, friend,” they say in unison, and without the lingering boyfriend scandal to hold their attention, they quickly lose interest and return to their projects.
“Well done, Ms. Bradford. That was impressive,” I tell her. “You are awesome at bossing small humans around. If only Winnie listened so well.”
“The only way Winnie listens to me is if I put a bagel on my head,” she says, and turns to set the flowers on her desk. “And thank you again for these. You’re second only to a unicorn as far as best friends go, Josh Im.”
“I wanted to see you in your element, and it gave me a good excuse to stop by with a development on the Josh and Hazel double-dating bonanza.”
“Ooooh!” She claps her hands, watching as I pull out my phone.
“My friend Dax is a veterinarian and breeds Shetland ponies or something in Beaverton. Really good-looking, too.” I open my Facebook app and find his name.
“You have a veterinarian friend with ponies and you’re just now telling me about him? An imaginary talking badger has taken back second place in the best friend hierarchy.”
“I completely forgot,” I say, and click through to his profile, zooming in on the image so she can see. “We went to high school together and he popped up in my feed this morning.”
Hazel leans in for a closer look. “Would he be bringing a pony on the date?”
“I can certainly request it.”
She takes my phone and scrolls through his other photos. “He’s not unfortunate-looking and the prospect of future pony rides does sweeten the pot.”
“Should I call him?” I ask, studying her.
She hands me back my phone. “I’ve been thinking of asking the lifeguard at my pool,” she says in lieu of an answer, her lips pursed as she considers. “She seems really cool and can save your life if you fall in the river again.”
“I didn’t fall in the river, I was more or less pushed.”
I ignore this. “Maybe we could set something up for Friday?”