He hasn’t said this only to Hazel, he’s said it to me, to the entire table, and a hush falls over the four of us.
“Are you for real?” Michelle can’t seem to hold it in anymore, and she throws her napkin on her half-eaten burrito. “I’m sure Hazel felt the same way the minute you asked her about her fucking 401(k).” She turns and levels her glare at me. “Josh? You seem like a nice guy. But can I give you some advice? You’re on the wrong date tonight.”
Standing, she waves limply at Hazel before leaving.
Dax lifts his napkin, tapping it to his mouth. “Good idea, Josh, wrong ballpark.” He stands, too, reaching for his wallet and pulling out a twenty. Smiling over at me like nothing is wrong, he says, “Let’s grab lunch this week?”
I meet Hazel’s eyes. It’s at this moment that I realize I know her as well as almost anyone alive does, except maybe Aileen. She’s wearing a carefully practiced look of amused indifference, but inside she’s scratching his eyeballs out.
He’s hovering, waiting for me to reply.
Happily, I say, “Go fuck yourself, Dax.”
“I feel like I got in a fistfight tonight,” Hazel says, following me into my house. She collapses on the couch. “Dax is going to exhaust some decent woman someday.”
“He used to be cool.” I drop my keys in the bowl near the door and toe off my shoes. “Or maybe he’s always been a dick and I just never hung out with him around women.”
“Lots of guys are great with other guys, and legit assholes with women.”
I stop on my way to the kitchen, bending to plant a kiss on her forehead. “Sorry, Haze.”
She waves a tired hand and points at the television, indicating that she wants me to turn it on. I reach under her couch cushion and pull out the remote, handing it to her.
Straightening, I continue to the kitchen, and I am immediately reminded that my mom was here earlier. My stomach rumbles to life; I’d essentially pushed my tilapia Veracruz around my plate—too preoccupied with Dax and Hazel to eat very much.
Is that what Michelle meant on her way out? That I should have been on the date with Hazel?
A rush of heat hits my cheeks, as if I’ve said it out loud and Hazel has heard me. On the counter the rice cooker is holding a batch of rice on the warm setting, and in the fridge I find shelves full of Tupperware and old butter containers, all labeled with whatever’s inside and the dates they need to be used by. There are even a few with Hazel’s name, filled with what I’m assuming is my mom’s kimchi fried rice—Hazel’s favorite.
As if she can read my mind, she calls out from the living room, “Don’t eat my fried rice!”
I look at her around the refrigerator door. “Then why did you eat my bulgogi earlier?”
She gives me a dramatic you’re dumb face. “Because it didn’t have your name on it?”
I reach for one of the containers, dump it into two bowls, and pop them into the microwave, grabbing a couple of beers when the food is done, and carry it all into the living room.
Hazel is watching Olympic gymnastics where she left off earlier, and on the screen a group of young athletes anxiously pace the sidelines as they wait their turn on the vault. I already know the results—having seen the scores when it aired six years ago—but can’t help but wince anyway when the third girl loses her balance and lands hard on her foot.
I peek at the screen through my fingers. “Isn’t there anything else on?”
Hazel moves to the edge of the couch and turns to face me. “You’re into the fitness, how can you not be into this?”
“ ‘Into the fitness’?”
“You know what I mean.”
I use my chopsticks to point to the TV. “Because look at it. It wrecks your body.”
Hazel glances back to the screen. “You mean, like, broken bones and stuff?”
“That, sure. But I’m also talking long term. These kids start so young, and that kind of exertion and training is hard on growing bodies. Stress fractures can occur later in life because low body fat can lead to delayed puberty and weaker bones. Even stunted growth. Not to mention the sheer force the body is being subjected to. Little wrists and ankles aren’t made for that sort of impact.”
She frowns. “I never thought about it like that. They all look so fit. Like little muscle machines.”
“They are fit. That’s part of the problem. They train nonstop and that kind of strenuous lifestyle is almost impossible to maintain. Why do you think most gymnasts retire in their twenties?”
“But then they get a whole new career. I should have done gymnastics. I bet I could do it now.”
“You’re what? Twenty-eight?”
She startles. “Twenty-seven.”
I laugh at the shadow of insult on her face. “Okay, twenty-seven. I bet you used to do cartwheels all the time.”
“Are you kidding? Constantly.”
“But you probably couldn’t do them as well now. Our center of gravity changes and even if we’re still fit and strong, we become less flexible as we get older.”
She lobs a frown in my direction. “Are you calling me old?”
I place my bowl on the coffee table in front of us before I’m wearing its contents. “Older, not old.”
Hazel sets her bowl next to mine and stands, reaching for my hand. “Come with me.”
“What?” She lifts a brow in warning but doesn’t elaborate. I take the offered hand and let her help pull me up. “Okay … Where are we going?”
“Outside to be young again.”
“Right. Of course. You hear that, Winnie? We’re going outside to be young.”
Winnie trots happily along behind us, because clearly the only thing she’s heard is outside.
Hazel leads us through the kitchen and out the back door, and the screen falls closed at our backs. The sun is long gone but the motion-detector lights flicker on, casting shadows of the trees from one end of the yard to the other. The air is heavy and damp, thick with pine and the sweet scent of decaying mulch in the flower beds. It’s a little on the chilly side, and feels like it might rain. Even in the night air, Hazel bounds down the stairs and out onto the grass.
Satisfied that she’s found the right spot, she bends at the waist, gathering her long hair again and twisting it back into another gravity-defying bun. Winnie stops at my side, head tilted as we both watch, eager to see what Hazel has in store for us.
Straightening, she motions for me to join her.
I cross the yard. “What are you—” I start, but my words are cut off by a gust of air forced from my lungs as I’m tugged down into the dewy grass. Hazel kneels at my side and proceeds to tug off my socks, one at a time.
I look down to my bare feet and then to my dress pants and button-down shirt. “What … are we doing?”
She considers me for a moment but is not deterred, chewing on her lip as she moves to unbutton the top two buttons of my shirt.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she says then, pulling my arm toward her to begin rolling up my sleeve.
“Do you ever miss Tabby?”
This takes me by surprise and I look up at her. She’s so close, hovering just above me. I spot a tiny freckle I’ve never seen before on the underside of her chin.
“What makes you ask that?”
She shrugs. “You were right. Dating is rough. I think I forgot. Or maybe I’ve never done it like this before.”
Hazel looks down, meeting my eyes briefly before she turns her attention back to where she’s rolling up my other sleeve. Her touch is soft and focused; it makes me feel hyperaware, bringing the heat back to my face as I think again about what Michelle said. For the length of an inhale, I picture leaning forward, feeling the press of her mouth to mine. I swallow, not sure where the thought came from, or what to do with it.
“I can see why you were so reluctant to dive back in there,” she says quietly. “I don’t know. Just wondering whether you missed being in a relationship with her.”
“I used to think I was a good boyfriend. Looking back, I think maybe not.”