“I’ll stop by the pool on my way home and let you know.”
The volume in the class behind us is rising, and I know that’s my cue to let her go. “Sweet, I’ll get a hold of Dax and we can coordinate.”
It’s only once I’m back at my car that I register the reason I was thinking of a double date again: I want to hang with Hazel.
When I get home Friday night, Hazel has clearly let herself in. I can hear the TV as soon as I step in from the garage, yelling, “Honey, I’m home.”
Winnie skitters around the corner when she hears me, almost knocking me over as I slip off my shoes. I’ve missed this girl but she is a terrible guard dog.
Hazel sits up when I walk into the living room and grins at me over the back of the couch. “Hola, señor.”
“Sorry I’m late.” Our dates with Dax and Michelle are tonight, and I have just enough time to shower and change if we’re going to make it in time for our dinner reservation. “Appointments went long and I got caught up on some insurance stuff.”
“My apartment was boring so I decided to just head over. Good thing, too, because your mom was just here.” She holds up a steaming bowl and a pair of chopsticks. “And she brought food!”
I fold myself over the back of the couch to see what she’s eating, and my stomach growls. “You know we’ll be at dinner in, like, an hour.”
“I dare you to face your mother’s cooking and refuse it.” Hazel lifts a strip of beef and green onion to my mouth, and I groan as I chew. I really should be getting ready, but instead I adjust her grip on the chopsticks, steal another bite, and round the couch to sit at her side.
“When did she leave?”
Hazel tears herself away from her food long enough to answer. “About twenty minutes ago? She was here for a while, though. She showed me some embarrassing baby pictures and we talked about how you work too much and have too many pairs of black tennis shoes.” She giggles through another bite. “I really like her.”
This catches my attention and I look over at her. I can count on one hand the number of times Umma and Tabby were together without me, and Tabby made sure to complain about each one as much as possible afterward. She never cared about getting to know either of my parents. She definitely never liked them.
“I guess it’s convenient that she likes you, too.”
“Of course she does,” Hazel says, handing me the bowl and laughing when I immediately dig in. “I threw fruit at her the first time we met, and am the only one who ate that stinky fermented fish she made the other night. According to your sister I’m at least half-Korean now.”
“It’s called hongeo and even I won’t eat it.” I take another bite and then offer one to Hazel. It’s been a long day, and a night out is sounding less appealing with every minute. “Umma likes you because you’re bizarre, charming, and have her worrying a little less that I’ll die miserable and alone.”
“Miserable and alone.” She scoffs. “Have you seen yourself? We just need to step up the search.”
Applause from the TV catches my attention, and it’s only now that I notice what she’s been watching.
“Why are you watching the Olympics from … London?”
“I love highlight shows.” When I lift a skeptical brow she sighs, shoulders slumping back against the couch. “I couldn’t find the remote.”
“Have you actually looked? You’re probably sitting on it again.” I move to stand but she stops me with a hand to my stomach.
“You can’t change it now, I’m invested!”
“Haze, we have to go.”
“Then record this for me.”
“You realize you can Google to see how this ended, right?”
She gives me a grumpy Muppet face. “Where is the fun in that? Googling Olympic results is a joy killer.”
“Or, I don’t know, a time saver.” I get up from the couch. “Let’s get rolling. I’ll clean up real quick.”
I get an uneasy feeling about setting up Dax with Hazel the very moment she and I step foot in the restaurant and he sees her. Granted, I’m not an expert on the variety of human expressions, but his mild nostril flare and frown when his eyes drag over her—her trademark high bun, her cow-print tank top and frayed jean skirt with green cowboy boots—can’t be a good sign.
We shake hands, introducing ourselves, and follow the hostess to our booth smack in the middle of the busy restaurant. Hazel smoothes her skirt over her thighs and turns to Dax, grinning. Inside my chest, my heart melts with the effort she gives every single person, even those who look at her like she’s beneath them.
“So,” she says, “where’re you from, Dax?”
“Michigan, originally.” He leans in, clasping his hands. “And you’ve lived in Oregon your whole life?”
Michelle is pretty enough, and being a lifeguard, she’s obviously fit. But even if it feels like we might have a lot in common, I can’t pay as close attention to her as I’d like given that what I’m overhearing from across the table turns more Spanish Inquisition than Getting to Know You.
Dax wants to know about Hazel’s extended family, her job, her home. He asks her whether she plans to buy a house versus rent. He seems concerned that she doesn’t know what kind of retirement plan the school district offers.
While Michelle and I make idle small talk, I overhear Hazel answering his questions happily, even throwing in little anecdotes, about her mom (“She has the most beautiful singing voice, but really only in the shower”), her apartment (“It flooded like an ocean a couple months ago … maybe that’s why all my dreams are about being on a boat?”), and her job (“Two days ago I came home smelling like tree sap, and I have no idea why. Third graders, man.”). But, for all of her efforts to be amiable, Dax continually answers her return questions with single words—even monosyllables.
When Hazel gets up to make a call, Dax meets my eyes and gives me an exasperated look I think is supposed to communicate Wow, this one is crazy, but I pretend I don’t understand.
“What?” I say, hearing the aggressive edge to my voice.
He laughs. “Nothing. Just …”
I can feel Michelle looking at me, and the awkward tension rises like fog.
“She’s, ah, a bit eccentric for my ta—” Dax snaps his mouth shut just as Hazel returns to the table.
She plops down onto her chair and explains, “Sorry. That was my mom. She got new boots, and I think she was going to keep spamming me with pictures until I called her and agreed that they’re awesome.” Stabbing her fork into her dinner, she adds, “For the record, they’re rad. They’re turquoise with shell beads around the top, and I bet they make her look like a fairy unicorn goddess when she’s gardening. Even though they’re, you know, cowboy boots.”
Dax bites his lip, frowning down at the table. Although Hazel is handling him with her trademark breezy cheer, when he gets up to go to the restroom a few minutes later, she catches my eye and pantomimes drinking down a bottle of alcohol.
“Oof,” she mumbles.
“He seems a little … intense,” Michelle says quietly, wincing over at Hazel.
Hazel grins, popping a chip into her mouth. “A smidge. I thought he bred ponies? How can he be so grouchy when he breeds ponies?”
“Sorry.” I reach across the table, squeezing her hand. “We can shuffle him into the Never Again pile.”
Dax returns and immediately looks over at Hazel’s plate, where only a small bit of beans and the last bite of her enchiladas remain. “You finished all that?”
She stares at him for a long, steady beat. Inside my chest, my heart feels like a chunk of hot coal. I watch as she pushes a grin across her face. “Hell yeah, I did. My dinner was fucking awesome.”
Dax lifts his glass, and if it’s possible to take a judgmental sip of water, he pulls it off. He sets the glass down carefully before looking up. “Is it fair of me to say now that I don’t think this is a good fit?”