by Summer Hammond
Hazel and her mother climbed into the car, their laughter and perfumes mingling, and Hazel, for a moment beside herself, transported, possibly insane, couldn’t help wondering. Was this a mother-daughter date night?
She’d read about mother-daughter date nights, not in the Bible, and not in the Watchtower, but somewhere, maybe Seventeen. Hazel was only allowed to read Seventeen on condition she ripped out the Sex and Your Body section, shredding it with scissors while her mother supervised. Hazel enacted this ritual faithfully every time a new issue of Seventeen arrived in the mail. Once, at a garage sale, Hazel had discovered a whole boxful of old Seventeen’s for only a buck. She’d dared to beg, and then, the cost of her great wish, was spending the entire weekend ripping, shredding, crumpling, and discarding Sex and Your Body. Until she broke down in tears, because the box was bottomless, and her hand hurt, her fingers cramped, and oh, how she wished she hadn’t gotten her wish!
Now, snapping her seatbelt into place, Hazel shook herself from the fantasy of mother-daughter date nights, and wondered, what would be the cost of tonight’s great wish. She knew why it was granted. Three weeks ago, she’d nearly died. The lingering scent of mortality, her fragility, the smoke of a close call still hanging over their heads, had transformed her into Cinderella, her mother into the benevolent wish-granting Fairy. For a limited time, and a limited time only, Hazel could ask for, and receive, almost anything. And what had she requested?
Hazel flipped down the visor mirror, applied another coat of lip gloss, and laughed. What a silly way to spend a wish.
Speaking of silly. Her appendix had burst. That’s what had nearly killed her. Hazel imagined it, a deflated fingerlike organ, leaking poison, a slick little assassin. What she recalled most, far more vividly than the pain (like being ripped at the seams), the trip to the ER bundled in a blanket, the gynecology exam (her first) that made her feel her ovaries, made her bleed, made her worry she wasn’t a virgin anymore, more vividly even than all that, Hazel recalled the journey out of the woods, back to the world. She’d fought it, that’s why. She hadn’t wanted to come back to the world. Not at all.
She’d been so happy in the woods.
So happy, hiding there, in the cool, calm, mossy embrace of the forest. It was dark in the woods, but not the dark that frightens; it was the dark that asks, that allows you to rest. Hazel was only seventeen. She didn’t know she needed to rest, until she was in the woods, curled up like a moon on a patch of velvety green moss, the trees linking arms above her, a kind yet swarthy fortress. A light breeze whisking the branches, shush, shush. Soft spots of sunlight dappling her skin. Her old, red tennis shoes, the ones she couldn’t part with, the ones her mom called ornery, because they held together, no matter what, year after year. Hazel’s shoes, like her heart, which was somehow outside her chest, beside her, resting, like her, in a nest of moss. What had happened? Her heart was vibrant and meaty, yet torn, viciously rent, threads hanging, a raw and burning tangle of pulsing muscle, and grief. Hazel had wanted only to stay in the woods, and care for her heart, care deeply for it, cradled in its mossy nest.
So when the ringing started, she’d fought. No, don’t call me. No! She’d kicked her legs, punched the air, then slapped her hands over ears, curled deeper into herself, grit her teeth.
Ring! Ring! She twisted one way, then the other, tried to bury herself in the forest floor, the dirt, the twigs, the leaves, pouring them over her head. Mom.
She’d sat bolt upright then, foliage clinging to her hair.
Hazel had read, not in the Bible, not in the Watchtower, most likely in Seventeen, that mammal babies were hardwired to love their mothers. Born to love, no choice, sealed to that fate.
Hazel could only rise, even if leaving the woods meant leaving her own heart.
So Hazel rose. She walked fast, then ran, her ornery red shoes swishing and crunching through leaves, to her mother, calling her back. She pushed through tangles of branches, opening finally, at last, into a clearing where gold light pooled on soft green grass, and baby deer . . . Oh!
Hazel’s eyes had popped open. She lay flat on her back on a gurney.
“Would someone get that?” she’d cried, trying to raise up on her elbows, and falling back. “Please, someone, pick up the phone! It’s my mother. My mother is calling me.”
The surgeon had arrived. Hovering over her, red hair askew, he’d quieted her cries, and pointed to the machine that stood nearby, some kind of monitor. Ring! Ring!
How deeply embarrassing.
Poor Hazel. Poor, dumb Hazel.
The tears had crawled, warm and slow, down either side of her face.
Now here she was, beside her mother in the car, winding down their long, meandering driveway, set deep in the Ozark countryside. The cereal crunch of gravel under tires was too clear to contest: this was not the woods, this was the world. Still, the late evening sun winked gemlike in their hair, and they were beautiful together, she and her mother, engraved in gold. Then she remembered. In the world, simple mistakes exploded lovely moments into shards, into smithereens.
Hazel checked the zipper on her shorts.
Seventeen had told her so much, yet had failed to warn her about zippers.
One tug, just to be safe.
How surreal. Hazel, skating alone, in an endless circle, as Celine Dion wailed “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” and strange, otherworldly lights spun on the ceiling. Well, disco ball lights. The song invited Hazel to wonder about the whereabouts of her own heart. To put it simply, her heart hadn’t returned with her from the woods. And she didn’t know how to call it back.
That was something she would never tell, and must remind herself not to tell, in a burst of nervous gibberish, if by chance she made a friend tonight, which, by the looks of it, was a bleak prospect. Even though tonight’s skate night was reserved—Jehovah’s Witnesses only.
Baptist youth groups had skate night once a month on Monday nights. Pentecostal youth groups, once a month on Thursday nights. Jehovah’s Witnesses endured more religious meetings than any of them, four per week, plus the bonus of mandatory door-to-door preaching, and even what amounted to a public speaking class with a score card and everything, plus the Watchtower study, which was more like school than church, so the Witnesses had snagged the once-a-month Sunday night time slot, when the other religious groups pretended to rest, as if they needed rest after doing nothing, maybe a little speaking in tongues, but nothing truly taxing. Like Hazel’s mother always said, the Jehovah’s Witness faith was the Ivy League of religions. Most people didn’t want to work that hard, sacrifice birthdays and Christmas, and all the other pagan fun. The lazybones and ne’er-do-wells became the Baptists, the Catholics.
Hard-working JW youth swooshed past Hazel, one after another, and she longed after them. Her congregation, Willow Creek, claimed a sparse number of youth, mostly younger than Hazel, and Hazel was the only Jehovah’s Witness at her high school. At lunch, she sat with the band nerds, along with the mysterious girl who, since middle school, read only the Little House on the Prairie series, and whose face Hazel had never actually seen, hidden as it always was behind her book cover, so that she’d merged with it, leading Hazel to see her as a never-growing, never-changing illustration of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with braids, freckles, and a prairie dress. They were the most innocuous group of worldly people Hazel could choose to associate with at school. And of course, she wasn’t allowed to join band herself, or go over to the band nerds’ houses, hang out at the mall, or whatever they did. In truth, Hazel wasn’t allowed, for the most part, to hang out with anyone, at any time, for reasons she didn’t fully fathom. She’d hoped, with near unbearable hope, tonight would mark a turning point.
Hazel eyed now, with special longing, the little clamorous groups of girlfriends, hip bumping each other, laughing, wheeling, shrieking, nearly falling, catching each other’s wrists, holding on, twirling. She wondered if she could do what they did. If she would even know how. Each time they passed, skates clicking and clacking, their perfumed breeze lifted the ends of Hazel’s soft hair.
She held her own hands, held them clasped, behind her back, and skated onward, the disco ball now flashing rainbow prisms of light on her battered tan skates with the thick brown laces, scuffed orange wheels, on her knobby knees, her peasant blouse. Oh, was Hazel glad she’d worn this blouse! She took delight, comfort even, in the way the flowery sleeves billowed as she skated. She liked to imagine how she might look to the others, the ones flying past, with her flowing shirt and flyaway hair, a solitary figure, a tragic romantic. Someone intriguing, someone worthwhile to know, perhaps even a poet. Hazel wasn’t sure Jehovah’s Witnesses got to be poets, but then again, what about King Solomon? She closed her eyes, swayed on her skates, like a poet might. She sent up a prayer that, when she opened her eyes, someone would be skating alongside her.
That, after all, was the reason Sister Patrick had invited her to skate night.
Hazel didn’t quite remember, due to the stupor of pain medication. But Hazel’s nurse had kindly filled her in. According to Nurse Dee, Hazel had pitched a fit when her mother tried to sit in the chair next to Hazel’s bed, in the hospital room, after Hazel returned from the woods. “You kicked out your own mother!” Hazel hadn’t known that tsking was a thing that could happen, outside of books. But Nurse Dee had most certainly tsked. “Imagine!”
Hazel’s imagination, called to action, had gone straight to work, with gusto, painting a vivid scene of Hazel’s wild-eyed fury, her yelling and thrashing, her pummeling of fists on the bed. Get out! Get away from me! Her mother recoiling, eyes round with shock, the horror, the wound of rejection seeping across her face, the way she turned and slumped, hugging her purse, an old beat up thing, leaving the room with small, stifled cries.
Consequently, Hazel was pierced by the pungent guilt Nurse Dee had hoped to produce. Hazel had tried to plead her case. It was the medication, Nurse Dee. Not the truth!
Medication can make you loopy, not yourself, like booze. That’s what Sister Patrick had told her, in a hushed voice, stroking Hazel’s hand. Nurse Dee further reported, shaking her head, that after kicking her scared, sad mother out of the room, wicked Hazel drove the knife in, asking for Sister Patrick instead.
“While your poor mother stood outside, looking in at the two of you.” Nurse Dee had tsked again. “Your mother’s face! Oh, my heart broke. Someday, young lady, when she’s not around anymore, mark my words, you’ll regret.” She’d wagged her finger at Hazel. “Mothers do everything for their children, give up their own lives. And this is what they get in return?”
Hazel had come to think of her as Nurse D for disappointment, D for dismay, D for disgust. Yet, even so, Nurse Dee had wielded that cold, slim needle, with which she had the power to exact terrible vengeance, with remarkable gentleness, coaxing Hazel’s blood with a near balletic grace.
Day after day, Sister Patrick had read to Hazel from that infamous bedside chair. Hazel recalled the crinkly pages of the Bible, Proverbs’ soothing wisdom. Hazel had then, inscrutably, insisted on hearing one story, and one story only, each time Sister Patrick arrived to visit. That of Ruth and Naomi.
As Hazel gained strength, she recited, along with Sister Patrick’s sweet, resonant voice, Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go. And where you stay, I will stay. And goodness! What a mess Hazel was. It had to be the pain meds, because Hazel’s heart was still in the woods. She’d wept over those lines like a baby. So that Sister Patrick had closed the Bible, and gone very still. Rising at last, when she thought Hazel finally asleep, she’d whispered, “I am bound to find you a friend, Sister Hazel,” planting a fierce kiss on Hazel’s forehead, like sealing a pact.
And so, skate night.
Celine Dion’s voice, her high pitched plea, trailing off, a lingering vibrato. When Hazel opened her eyes, there was no friend. Only her, and her billowing sleeves. The lights went up, bright and bleak, as she rounded the corner, and then, all she could hear was the clack-clack-clack of her own skates.
In the dining area, she spied her mother sitting alongside Sister Patrick, and some other women, at a few tables, pushed together. Sister Patrick and the others, drinking coffee and sodas, leaned in, tipping their heads close, laughing. They knew how to be with one another. How did they know? Hazel’s mom didn’t know. She drew away, shoulders pulled together, clutching her coffee cup like a life raft in the middle of a sea, where she sank, bit by bit, with painstaking resignation. Hazel braked, then swerved, clambering onto the carpeted floor, rolling wild, too fast. She wheeled her arms, grabbed onto a pillar, steadied herself. Then, taking a deep breath, she propelled herself forward, rolling into the dining area. Her mother looked up. “What are you doing?”
This time, Hazel knew what to do. Pulling out a chair beside her mother, she said, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay . . .”
“Oh no you don’t.” Her mother jerked the chair from under Hazel’s grip, pushed it back to the table. Under her breath, so Sister Patrick and the others wouldn’t hear, her mother said, “What did I tell you before we left tonight?”
Hazel’s head spun. She swallowed. “I don’t remember.”
“Tonight is for you, not for me. Stop babysitting me, Hazel.”
“But . . .”
“Hazel, go.” Her mother bugged her eyes, flicked her hand. “Go.”
Hazel went. Lights everywhere, lights on the floor, the walls, swirling round and round, while Bon Jovi screamed “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The lights silvered the hair on her arms, and Hazel remembered she was a mammal. Oh yes. She was born for this. Her bond to her mother a biological steel chain, unbreakable. Hazel had returned from the woods for this, the undeniable connection, the relentless pull of that chain. Each time she circled the dining area, the chain pulled, and Hazel checked. Her mother tentatively sharing a checkered carton of cheesy nachos with Sister Patrick. Her mother eating, laughing with the other women! And yet, Hazel’s third time round, her mother sat alone, rummaging through her purse, looking lost, small, abandoned.
Where you go, I will go.
Why did it feel like her mother needed her, desperately, and yet, with equal desperation, wished her gone?
And because life lives on irony, the DJ announced, “It’s tiiiiiime for . . . parent-kid skate!” Followed by the opening chords of a wistful guitar, a husky voice invoking the Good Lord’s protection over a child. And when Hazel again rounded the corner, this time seeing her mother’s chair empty, her imagination, that ruthless exploiter, kicked in but good. She pictured her mother skating up beside her, hooking their arms together, leaning her head on Hazel’s shoulder. Have I told you? I’m so glad you’re mine, and that you came back.
Oh, just to imagine, those words, her mother’s soft touch, was like coming alive, was like breathing that first big breath, a greedy, devouring swallow, like at birth!
It was then that Hazel saw him. Him. Was it him? She was sure it was him. Those unruly auburn curls! It had to be him. But wasn’t he from St. Louis? He’d told her that night, she was sure of it, he was only visiting, there just one night, for the wedding. Why would he be here, at this Podunk town skate night? But then, who else could it be but him?
Hazel’s eyes flew to her zipper.
What if her mother arrived beside her, and Hazel’s zipper was down, and her mother saw him?
Losing air, walls closing in, Hazel skated into a patch of darkness. There, she tugged at her zipper, once, twice. She couldn’t stop tugging. She tugged at her zipper until her hands hurt, trembled. She was dizzy, desperate. Then, she remembered. She remembered why she’d gone to the woods.
She and her mother had attended a wedding together. At the reception, during dinner, Hazel was surprised to discover a boy, tapping on her shoulder, a light tap. A boy, hoping to dance with her, offering his hand with a smile. So, Hazel had danced with a boy, her first dance, and the boy had wild auburn curls, which astonished her, captured her, because Witness boys cut their hair quite close, and slicked it, like prim schoolmasters from a bygone era. So she was utterly taken with this boy’s curls, the daring they spoke, the courage, and the song that played while they swayed together, “Can’t Fight this Feeling,” seemed, when she glanced up into his eyes, to tell on her, to reveal her, in the most tender, exquisite way. He’d told her his name, Andy, and he’d invited her to see a movie after, with him and some of his friends.
Hazel never asked for things like this, she knew better by now, but oh, Andy. His hair, his hands. Andy. She’d begged her mother, while her mother was in a group, and maybe it was true, maybe she had done it on purpose, knowing her mother would cave to the pressure, hating to look like a bad mother, and so forced to say yes.
Because that night, when Hazel came home, drenched in happiness, her mother, who’d been sitting in the kitchen, waiting for her, had said, “You knew exactly what you were doing, Hazel Mae. You knew I couldn’t say no.” Which could be dangerous. But the way her mother’s mouth curved, like mischief, not like rage, Hazel didn’t think she was in trouble. Her mother was irritated, but with a redeeming sliver of admiration for Hazel’s sly ways, her unexpected cunning.
But then, eyes narrowing, her mother had pointed to Hazel’s jeans. “What is that?” Her face, her voice, so horrified, so revolted, Hazel half expected to see a snake, unfurling itself from between her legs.
What she saw was, her zipper down.
Her pink underwear ballooning through the teeth.
Because Hazel’s mom bought her granny panties.
That’s what they were called.
You can’t cut that many Sex and Your Body articles out of Seventeen without picking up some information here and there.
So Hazel knew about briefs, bikinis, thongs, the differences, and that what she wore, the only underwear her mother let her wear, were granny panties.
And her jeans were new, never before tested, and the zipper had betrayed her.
And the way her bubblegum pink granny panties puffed out, made it look like her crotch was blowing a bubble.
When, exactly, during the night, had her zipper come down?
She’d replayed the night’s events. Her mother dropping her off at the theater, Hazel climbing the steps, self-conscious, hands shoved into jean pockets, pushing through the doors, into the warm, buttery embrace of popcorn, bright burst of popping, spirit sparking, rising at the sight of Andy. How she’d beelined straight to him, smiled so open-hearted, like some vibrant girl with a big personality, one she didn’t recognize but rather liked, as he turned to greet her. What if then, at that very moment, her zipper was down, her pink granny panties puffing out at him?
Maybe that’s why he’d spun away so fast, buying her a jumbo popcorn, even though she hadn’t asked for one.
Thinking this, Hazel had clapped her hands to her face and fallen back, against the wall. She’d tried telling her mother what she feared, the scene in her head, but she broke down all at once, laughing, and couldn’t stop. Her mother had risen, slowly, from her chair. And Hazel had doubled over, laughing and laughing. She was ready, so ready, to grab onto her mother’s arms, laugh-dance until their ribs hurt. Until they were both on the floor. Until they cried.
Hazel’s imagination really was not fair to her, not kind.
Because in reality, what had happened was, Hazel’s mother had pushed her face right up into Hazel’s, and she’d spat, right into Hazel’s face, this one word. “Jezebel.”
Right into Hazel’s eyes, that one word. “Jezebel.”
Hazel’s laughter had curled up in her throat.
And then, her mother’s finger, jabbing in Hazel’s face, so she winced. “Serves you right for tricking me. You shamed me, and yourself. Now get those filthy Jezebel jeans off you!”
Hazel had stripped, right there, right in the middle of the kitchen, right down to her pink granny panties, while her mom fetched the kitchen scissors, and shoving them into Hazel’s hands, she made Hazel cut them up, shred the Jezebel jeans. The kitchen scissors, the plastic-handled kind, not made for sawing denim, were rough and vicious, mauling the jeans into a grotesque, thready mess. Hazel had dropped each ragged fragment into the garbage bag her mother held out. Her mother said, twirling and tying up the bag, “See if I ever let you go out again.”
That night, when the pain arrived, deep inside Hazel’s gut, she didn’t realize, didn’t know, that it was anything more than anguish.
Frozen now in the dark corner of the rink, who should arrive but Nurse Dee. Face looming over Hazel’s, as though Hazel were once again prostrate and vulnerable in her hospital bed, Nurse Dee unleashed a stream of reproach. Your poor mother! She feeds you, clothes you, puts a roof over your head. How do you repay? Throw a tantrum. Hurt her feelings. Right when you need her most! Teenagers. Girls especially! Sure hope you don’t treat her like that at home, slamming doors, sulking.
Thankfully, Nurse Dee’s face was swiftly dispatched by the collision.
“Oomph!” Hazel flew, then sprawled, fingers splayed on the glossy floor.
Then, to top it off, the culprit rolled right over Hazel’s fingers.
“Ow, ow, ouch!” Hazel sat bolt upright, babying her hand.
“Oh dang, oh shoot!” The girl braked with a squeal, then spun, and her skates flew out from under her. She fell backward. “Crap!” One leg kicked up. The wheels of her skate spun in the air, fruitlessly.
The other skaters veered around them, whoooosh, like they were a wreck on a freeway. Hazel stared at the girl, now raising up on her elbows. She sported white hair, teased up, way up, like a punk rock lion.
Hazel wondered why it was she was so spellbound by hair.
The girl gripped Hazel by the hand. “Ready? One, two, three!” They held onto each other, arms, then hands, rising up like they were rope climbing, steadying each other, bit by bit, until at last, they were on their feet. “Hi,” the girl said. “I’m Sabrina. AKA, Finger Breaker.” Her hair, blue eyeshadow, and very long, very thickly mascara-ed lashes like spider legs. Hazel didn’t know any Witness girl allowed to look like that.
“I’m Hazel.” She held out her hand. They shook. “Hey, it’s a miracle, my fingers still work.”
“A miracle.” Sabrina grinned. She had black roots, which meant she bleached her hair! Hazel’s shock deepened. Some older Sisters at Kingdom Hall dyed their hair. They got to because they were old and harmless. She didn’t know any girls her age who bleached or dyed their hair. The Elders wouldn’t approve.
Sabrina spun, skating backwards, easy. “Hazel, you say? Yikes. What are you, seventy?”
“No.” Hazel said. “Seventeen.”
“Dang. Why’d your mom name you after an old lady?”
“I don’t know. Why’d your mom name you after a witch?”
“Ooh. Good one.” Sabrina flashed a thumbs up.
A bright burst in Hazel’s chest, and she smiled. Maybe she was doing it right. Or maybe . . . this was all a setup. “Did Sister Patrick make you come talk to me?”
Sabrina tilted her head. “Sister Patrick? Who’s that?”
And Hazel wanted to weep.
“Say,” Sabrina said as they rounded a corner, “I haven’t seen you around. What congregation do you go to?”
“Willow Ridge.” Hazel dipped her head. Willow Ridge was the poorest congregation, and the most hick.
Sabrina only shrugged. “I go to Cherry Canyon.”
Cherry Canyon was the rich, young, good-looking congregation. Also, the most disreputable in the district, what with the wife swapping drama last spring, involving two Cherry Canyon Elders and their wives, all disfellowshipped, and the Governing Body in New York had written a letter, reprimanding the whole congregation, calling it the Sodom and Gomorrah of Missouri, lusting after wealth, a festering well of fornication, a blight to Jehovah’s name. The Brothers in New York threatened to dismantle Cherry Canyon, shut it down, if the newly appointed Elders didn’t reform the sinister harlot spirit of the congregation, pronto.
Juicy tidbits Hazel had absorbed from the Sisters, gossiping in the car while going door-to-door in the way back yonder of the Ozarks. It’s all their money, Sister Todd had declared, smug. They’ve lost Jehovah’s protection. She was proud of her mobile home and station wagon, both of which had wheels falling off. But she bragged, whenever she got the chance, about the sanctity of not caring a mite for earthly material things.
Now, Hazel’s eyes drifted from Sabrina’s flamboyant hair to her vibrant makeup, and down her slender frame, stone-washed jeans hugging every curve. Jezebel.
The word entered Hazel’s mind easy, like nothing.
Sabrina said, “My family just moved here from California, and man, is it different here.”
“The Brothers wear cowboy boots with their suits. Snakeskin and ostrich!”
“It’s Missouri,” Hazel said.
“But do they even have horses?”
Hazel thought. “Do you have to have horses to wear boots?”
“You make good points.”
They skated by the dining area. Hazel, of course, checked. Sister Patrick waved so hard, she almost stood.
“Aww! How sweet. Is that your mom?” Sabrina asked.
“Sister Patrick,” Hazel said, waving back.
“Oh, that’s your Sister Patrick.” Sabrina waved, too, then crouched low, and executed a flawless spin, showing off.
“The other lady, is that your mom?”
“Yeah.” The other lady, Hazel’s mother, wasn’t waving.
“Why is she looking at me like that?”
“I don’t know. Spooked or something.”
Jezebel. That word in Hazel’s head, burst into flames.
Sabrina patted her bangs. “Probably my hair. The other day, an Elder told me I looked like that raunchy female pop star, the blonde one with the beauty mark who sings about fornication. He meant Madonna. He told me to dye my hair my natural color, and braid it. And stop wearing so much makeup.” Sabrina looked at Hazel then, in such a way. Her chin lifted, yet slightly trembling. A distinct, and poignant kind of vulnerability. An offering.
Jezebel. Then and there, Hazel swore, she vowed, she would not, she would never pass on that word, like a fiery torch, hand it off to this girl’s brain, a swiftly spreading wildfire of shame.
What she said was, “You look like you rolled right out of the pages of Seventeen.”
And the way Sabrina smiled, the light in her eyes, rising, was Hazel’s reward.
Hazel said, “My mom’s just worried because I’ve been sick. I had emergency surgery last month.”
“Oh, shoot!” Sabrina”s eyes shot open. “What happened?”
Hazel had to yell, over the sudden burst of music, the clamorous drum solo. “My appendix burst! I went to the movies! Ate a whole jumbo popcorn! A popcorn kernel got stuck in my appendix!”
“Dang!” Sabrina yelled back. “Death by popcorn! Hope that movie was worth it!”
Hazel didn’t remember the movie. She smiled, a faint thread of joy. “I was on a date. Kind of.”
Sabrina grabbed her arm. “You have a boyfriend? Don’t tell me he wears boots and doesn’t ride a horse.”
Hazel was grateful for the soft, slow-moving ballad, the couples’ skate, the lights, and everything, softening around them, so she could tell Sabrina about the wedding, the dance. Andy. Andy, she said, was so tall, her chin could tuck perfectly (and did) onto his strong lower chest. His hair, his curls! And cologne, oh help, saturating her hands, delicious, dizzying, so that after, she kept finding reasons to touch her face, to breathe him in, and each time, overcome, her knees going weak. Then, tentative, Hazel told about meeting him in the theater lobby, later that night, how she felt so strangely alive, not at all herself, and yet, far more so.
And she confessed.
“My zipper was down!” Music blaring, she cupped her hands around her mouth, in a shout.
Sabrina’s jaw dropped. “Girl, what?”
“My underwear was puffed out!” Surely, now, she’d gone too far.
Sabrina clapped a hand to her forehead. “Noooooo.” And then, with a sly look, “What kind of underwear?”
Hazel cried, “Granny panties!”
Sabrina flung her arms in the air. “Of course! Hazel. Of course you were wearing granny panties!”
“Pink,” Hazel added, biting her lip.
Sabrina worked on this image, putting the pieces together, her eyebrows moving. She got it. She grabbed Hazel’s arm again. “Oh my word! Puffing through your zipper, like bubblegum!”
Hazel said, in a rush, “My Jezebel jeans.” Immediately her face went red hot, eyes blurred with tears. She could neither breathe nor swallow. Boa constrictor suffocated.
But in the commotion of the rink, Sabrina couldn’t see. “Jezebel jeans!” She threw her head back, slapped her knee. “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing! You should brand that! Can you imagine? Jezebel jeans in Seventeen!”
“Jezebel jeans,” Hazel said, in wonderment.
“Jezebel jeans!” Sabrina burst into laughter. She laughed so hard she snorted, loud.
Hazel lost it.
They laughed over the music. They laughed over the stupefying flash of the disco lights. They laughed over the rush and ruckus of the other skaters. They laughed so hard, they had to hold onto each other’s elbows, arms, hands, spinning in the middle of the floor, in a slow circle, like a dance, holding onto each other for life, and laughing, until they fell, laughing, bruising tailbones they’d feel for days, a cherished souvenir, from laughing and laughing and laughing, while Mariah Carey sang, imploring her dream lover to take her away.
The song ended, and the lights came up. The skaters exited the rink, spilling out into the carpeted corridors.
Skate night was over.
Hazel and Sabrina sat up, clutching their sides. “Ow, ow.” Sabrina gasped, like a sob. “Shoot. I can’t breathe.”
Hazel could. She could breathe.
Before they rushed her into emergency surgery, Brother Montgomery, an Elder from Willow Ridge, had chased down Hazel’s gurney, made the nurses stop, and huffing and panting, because he was a big man who hadn’t run like that in years, maybe never, he’d thrown a paper at her, a legal form from The Watchtower Society. The No Blood form. Hazel knew if she signed the form, and something went wrong during surgery, a crisis that required a blood transfusion, she would die.
There on the gurney, she’d lifted her knee, signing her name with a flourish.
If Hazel died, her picture would appear in the Watchtower, alongside all the other young Jehovah’s Witnesses who’d sacrificed their lives obeying God’s law. But Hazel was no martyr. The No Blood form was sacred permission to go into the woods, and not return.
She and Sabrina could hardly get up. They kept trying and falling, giggling, and spluttering. Finally, they crawled off the rink, to the carpet, where they collapsed, side by side. They lay on their stomachs, and Hazel stared, mesmerized by the carpet’s hypnotic pattern of neon suns and moons and starbursts. She said, “Did you know mammals are hardwired to love their mothers? Not a thing they can do about it.”
“Hmm.” Sabrina considered, then rolled onto her side. “Have you heard about the wire mother experiment?”
Hazel said no, and Sabrina told her a story about baby monkeys, and wire mother versus cloth mother effigies. The wire mothers had a nipple and food bottle, while the cloth mothers offered no food, only a soft place of comfort to cling. When the baby monkeys were hungry, they went to the wire mother. But when they were frightened, or wanted love, they sought the cloth mother.
Hazel wondered what the experiment meant. Sabrina couldn’t explain.
They sat up, dizzy, holding their heads, and instead of the impossible mystery of mothers, Hazel thought about drinking too much, sneaking out, and slumber parties. She thought about the secrets she’d glimpsed while cutting out Sex and Your Body. Skate night was just a single star in an entire galaxy of things she’d never done.
She caught sight of her mother then, standing, arms crossed, by the exit. Their eyes locked, and Hazel’s mother tapped her watch. One, two, three times. Hazel’s time at the ball was ticking down, the magic of skate night dripping away. But not gone yet. Not entirely. Not quite.
Hazel pointed to her skates, indicating laces yet to be undone. She grimaced, shrugged. But her mother wasn’t easily fooled. Her eyes flitted, back and forth, connecting the dots of Sabrina and Hazel. She turned on her heel, and pushed out the door, into the night.
“Why didn’t your mom come over?” Sabrina asked, yanking out her laces, studying Hazel’s face.
“I don’t know,” Hazel said. The truest answer she might ever be able to give, regarding her mother.
“Are you mad I broke your fingers?”
“Nah.” Hazel said, wiggling them. Then, with a small smile, “There are worse things to break.”
“Like an appendix. Or a zipper.” Sabrina elbowed her. Then, “Say, Hazel. Are you coming back?”
Hazel blinked. “Coming back?”
“Next skate night.”
“Ohhh.” Hazel took a breath. She knew what the future held. Hazel would be asked, commanded, to cut Sabrina out, shredding her, while her mother held the garbage bag.
“I’ll do my best,” Hazel said. She would have to refuse, say no, and hold that ground. No sickness, no pain meds, no near death to excuse, protect, or save her. Just her. An army of one. Fighting for herself.
Her mother would never forgive her. Nurse Dee, and the whole world, would never forgive her. The raw pain of opposing her mother, rejecting her mother, hurting her mother, would never ease. Hazel’s little mammalian brain, shackling her to this chain on fire.
“I hope you come back,” Sabrina said. “We’ll be a team.” She leaned into Hazel, winked. “Granny and the Witch.”
Granny and the Witch. This was the beginning, Hazel understood. The story of them. The sea wave rush of warmth, a swell falling over her, and with it, a shock of feeling. She rested her hand on her chest, and there it was, the soft kick of life beneath her palm. Hazel closed her eyes.
Not to her mother. Not to God. Not even to Sister Patrick.
To that dumb machine by her hospital bed, ringing and ringing.
To that dumb machine, stubborn, relentless, and wholly pretend.
To the wire mother that had saved her. And given her skate night.