Jake spotted his wife as soon as she appeared from behind the sign that pointed out the parking lot of the Summer House. It was an unseasonably warm December day. She was wearing the streamlined gray coat that he had always found particularly flattering. Even if he hadn't seen the coat or the long, red hair flowing down from under her white knit hat, he would have recognized her from her gait alone.
He watched her through the floor-to-ceiling window knowing that the sun was reflecting off the glass, making it impossible for her to see him. Motherhood had changed her, but not in any way that made her less beautiful. If anything, she looked like she'd finally grown into her frame. As beautiful as she'd been when they first met, there had been something impossibly ephemeral about her beauty. These things might be easier if she'd faded with time instead of becoming more beautiful.
There was something unusual about the way she walked up the path. It took Jake a minute to recognize what was different. Her step was lighter and more confident than it had been in a long time. In short, it was unusual in that it was the gait he'd gotten used to seeing for nearly four years before things started to go wrong.
At first, he thought she must have taken another lover. But, her arms swung freely at her sides and there was no sense of furtiveness about her. Since no one was watching him, he allowed himself a small sigh of relief. He didn't know why it mattered to him now, but it did.
If it wasn't another affair, it probably meant that she'd come to an important decision. Of course, Jake didn't need to read her body language to figure that out. She'd called him and asked him to join her for lunch after two weeks of only talking through lawyers.
He looked to see if Hazel was leaning forward as she walked. It would indicate that she was scrapping for a fight. But, she'd already entered the restaurant while he was thinking.
Rising, he went to the entry room where Hazel was handing her coat to the check girl. When she saw Jake, she smiled. It wasn't the most radiant smile he'd ever seen on her face, but it seemed genuine, which was puzzling in and of itself.
Having been relieved of her coat, she put a hand on Jake's arm, went up on tiptoes, and kissed him on the cheek. Jake watched her suspiciously, but was too surprised by the gesture to hide the expression on his face.
"Don't scowl at me, Jake," she said gaily. "You're not going to scare me, but you might make the flowers wilt."
Jake let his face fall back to its traditional neutrality, "How are you, Hazel? You look well."
"I feel well," she said. "Have you gotten a table yet?"
"No," he said. "I was sitting in the solarium."
"Good," she said. "We should be able to get a table in the garden. By the way, how did you know about this place?"
"I've been here on business," said Jake. "I never got to eat here, though. I thought it looked interesting."
Hazel slapped him gently on the arm, "You should have told me sooner. If I'd known, we could have come here together."
Jake didn't bother to point out that they were here together now. He knew what she meant. As he watched her walk towards the back door, he wondered if picking this place had been a tactical error. He'd only been here on business once. When he drove up, he saw her car in the parking lot. At the time, it had been two months since he'd realized that she was sleeping with another man. If he'd gone into the dining area, he could have seen who that man was. He didn't go. Since he had no intention of doing anything about the other man, it did him no good to know who it was. Besides, he didn't particularly blame Hazel for sleeping around at that point. They'd been unhappy together for a long time. She never left their son alone for her dalliances. And, two or three nights a week, it gave him a night he could spend alone with his son and not have to worry that he and Hazel would get into another screaming match.
Still, when Hazel had asked Jake to meet her at some neutral location without their lawyers, this had been the first place he'd thought of. He'd suggested it because he knew she wouldn't be able to admit her reason for not wanting to meet there and it might keep her off balance to be on the site of her infidelity.
It had seemed reasonable to expect that he would want her off balance. Two weeks ago, Hazel had served him with divorce papers. More than a month ago, she'd waited until he went to work, packed up their son, left their apartment in Boston, and come back to their house in Mannsborough.
"How's Darwin?" Jake asked as they sat down.
"He's doing well," said Hazel. "He's with my sister right now."
"Your sister is in town?"
Hazel nodded, "She came in last week to help me out with... things."
"So," asked Jake. "What did you want to see me about?"
Hazel looked at him over her menu as if she were about to impart a great secret. She looked almost mischievous, "Jake, can I ask you a favor?"
Jake considered the question. Eleven days ago, in a particularly brutal blow up, this woman had called him a "hollow second-hander," a "fraud," and a "rapacious looter." That had been the last day that he'd seriously considered fighting the divorce. Since then, he hadn't been in much of a mood to do her any favors.
If there had been less at stake, he might have told her no. He was angry and wanted to lash out like she had. But, he had to do whatever it took to get custody of Darwin.
Of course, if he had told her that, she would have taken everything and fought for custody. So, he played it close to the vest and he played it by the book.
"What favor, Hazel?"
"Could we just have lunch together and not talk about the divorce?"
Jake considered the request. Was she trying to get his guard down so that he would say something she could use against him later? When she'd first asked for this meeting, Jake had been confused enough to call Anders back at the office and ask his advice.
"Don't go," said Anders. "You have lawyers. That's what they're for."
"I've already decided to go," said Jake. "How can I handle the meeting?"
"Wear a wire," said Anders.
"Christ, Andy. Be serious."
"I am serious," said Anders. "Jake, this is not the woman you fell in love with. Once a woman decides to divorce you, particularly if there are children involved, she becomes like a wounded animal. She'll do anything to keep Darwin. Has she accused you of molesting him yet?"
"No," said Jake. "And she won't. I know how bad your split with Katrina was. But, Hazel isn't capable of that level of malice."
"All right," said Anders. "Obviously, you know her better than I do. Just keep in mind that every man who's ever been through a divorce has been surprised by the level of malice his wife was capable of."
Jake sighed, "I'm not wearing a wire."
"Well," said Anders. "You'd better assume that she is, then."
"Right," said Anders. "She's not capable of that. All right, then. Behave like she's wearing a wire. If you say anything incriminating, she'll remember it all the way to court."
Jake considered that conversation now as Hazel ordered her drink. Could she be wearing a wire?
Still, Jake knew that, if it came down to a question of who could play it cooler, he had the edge. So, he said, "I would like that, Hazel. But, I can't promise. It's been on my mind a lot lately."
She smiled a little at his joke, "We have been kind of rough on each other lately, haven't we?"
Jake nodded. Admitting that they'd been hard on each other during divorce negotiations wasn't liable to surprise anyone, but the less he said out loud, the better.
"You're scowling at me again," she said. "But, it's not going to work. I'm in too good a mood."
"What do you have to be in such a good mood about?"
"It's a secret," she said. There was definitely mischief in her eyes this time.
As tempted as he was to go along with the farce of amicability, he decided to see if her good mood were real by throwing out a line to gauge her reaction.
"You can tell me," he said. "Did you convince the city to close down a soup kitchen?"
Hazel laughed somewhat harder than the joke really warranted. But, the laughter was tinged with genuine relief, "God, I've missed your sense of humor. Can you remember the last time we shared a joke?"
"It's been a long time," he said.
"Jake, I'm sorry I put you and Darwin through all of this. It's almost over. I promise."
Jake knew that his concern was showing in his face, but he couldn't help it, "Hazel, are you all right?"
Her smile didn't falter, "I told you. I'm in the best mood I've been in since... well, I don't know when. The last time I can remember being this happy was right after we first met."
"What happened then?" asked Jake. "As I remember, we knew each other for six months before you would give me the time of day."
She brushed a stray lock of hair out of her face, "All right--not after we first met. I meant after that day at the cottage. It wasn't six months."
"We met the day you walked out of Dr. Collins's macroeconomics class. That day at the cottage was in late June."
"June twenty-second," said Hazel.
Jake looked down at the syllabus he'd been handed and scowled. He'd signed up for macroeconomics with Dr. Alan Collins. When he arrived in class, he found that, instead of Dr. Collins, the class was being taught by an unknown adjunct whose primary claim to fame was that he had served in the treasury department of the state of Massachusetts. Jake had chosen the section based on the recommendation of a friend who was an economics major with whom he shared many convictions.
"I want you all to look over the syllabus and let me know if there are any questions," said the adjunct.
Jake raised his hand to ask what had happened to Dr. Collins. As he did so, a voice rang out behind him, "It looks like you're assigning reading from John Maynard Keynes, John Gailbraith, Karl Marx, and Josef Engels."
"That's correct," said the adjunct.
"When we're finished with these readings, will we be learning any actual economics?"
The adjunct looked puzzled, "What do you mean?"
"I mean," said the young woman who had spoken, "that, if I wanted to learn the precepts of socialism and be berated for wanting to keep what I earn, I would have been a women's studies major." She had risen as she spoke and, before the adjunct could close his mouth, made it to the doorway.
"Sit down," the adjunct said angrily when he found his voice.
She had a good head of steam. But, when the adjunct spoke, she stopped on a dime, turned and glared at him. The man actually took a step backwards even though they were about thirty feet apart.
"You may be under the impression that you are teaching high school students," she said quietly. "You clearly think that your job is to fill empty heads with dogma. But, you will not speak to me like that."
Having said her peace, she turned on her heel again and marched out.
There was some scattered applause around the room. Jake suspected it was for the wrong reasons.
"Well," said the adjunct, his face flushed, his chest puffed out. "If anyone else feels that way, they should go now. Because..."
Jake rose. He'd decided to drop the class as soon as he saw the syllabus. He would have done it quietly at the break. But, he had seen his future. And, he wanted to meet her before she got away. So, he rose and, in the face of the man's increasing apoplexy, followed her out.
He caught up with her as she was winding a long scarf around her neck to brave the cold outside. Hearing his footsteps approaching, she turned and watched him approach.
The stare was unnerving. Jake as a freshman didn't have the composure he'd learned today. Nearly to her, he called out, "Hey."
She arched a single eyebrow at him, "Yes?"
He stopped where he was standing, a good two yards away from her. What had he meant to say?
She gave him a sardonic smile and turned to go.
"Wait," he said, alarmed. "Please. What's your name?"
She smiled at him, green eyes glinting with amusement, "Hazel. What's yours?"
"Jake. Jake Steiner."
She seemed to roll the name around on her tongue, "Jake Steiner. Are you Jewish?"
Jake nodded, "Yes."
She frowned, "By inclination or by birth?"
Jake wondered what answer she wanted. He might have been offended by the line of questioning, but had never particularly identified with his heritage. Most people assumed he was Italian.
With no guidance as to how to finesse his answer for a more favorable impression, he elected to go with the truth, "I'm Jewish because my mother is Jewish. In matters of faith, I'm agnostic."
"Not atheist?" When Jake shook his head, she asked, "Why not?"
"I don't see any negative EV in hedging my bets."
Jake wanted to smack himself for slipping into unfamiliar jargon. There was something about Hazel that made him feel like he was twelve years old again. But, he explained, "It's a poker term. In other words, I don't see any disadvantage to staying open to the possibility that God exists."
"You play poker?" She looked mildly interested.
Figuring this may be the best response he was going to get from her, he said, "If I may make a suggestion, would you like to continue this cross-examination over a cup of coffee?"
Hazel looked a little bit sad, "I'm sorry. I don't drink coffee. And, while you seem nice enough, I'm really looking for a man who can stand by his convictions. It was nice meeting you, Jake." Again, she turned to go.
"Because I'm an agnostic?"
She nodded, "I'm afraid so. We just wouldn't be philosophically compatible."
Suddenly, a light went off in Jake's head. He knew part of what made this young woman tick. Thinking quickly, he said, "What I mean is that I don't believe in God. But, if someone could prove logically that He existed..." He shrugged.
Hazel turned back towards him, "That doesn't seem very likely."
Jake nodded, "I agree. But, it's reasonable to assume that unlikely does not equal impossible."
"I drink tea," she said.
Jake smiled, "I know just the place."
It took nearly an hour over coffee and tea for Jake to say something else "philosophically incompatible." He'd known that he would. Hazel's terminology marked her as a fan of the writings of Ayn Rand; her zeal marked her as a recent convert. Jake was too cynical, even at nineteen, to wholly embrace any philosophy.
His mistake came when Hazel fumed about the adjunct. Wanting to show off his knowledge of economics, he agreed with her on most points, but rose to the defense of Gailbraith. Once he did, Hazel got quiet and less animated.
Jake had enough self-possession not to stammer or dig himself in deeper. Instead, he changed the subject before she could say something she would have a hard time taking back.
"Do you take any art classes?" he asked.
"No," she said. "I'm not interested in a looking at pictures of made-up saints or being told how profound it is when Jackson Pollock sneezes on a canvas."
"Me neither," agreed Jake amiably. "I'm only in the art department because that's where Johnson College categorizes architecture."
"You're an architect?" Hazel asked. Her eyes lit up.
Jake nodded, "I will be soon, once I've learned all they can teach me here. Do you study architecture?"
Hazel shook her head, "I'm still undecided on my major. I'm going to be a writer, but don't think I could stand to try and get an English degree."
Having dodged one conversational bullet and made a favorable impression, Jake decided to exit before he ruined it. Rising, he said, "I need to get going. I want to find a good section of macroeconomics before they all fill up."
He walked Hazel back to her dorm. The way she held herself was too rigid and stand-offish for Jake to think an attempt to kiss her would result in anything but failure. Even a hug would have been chancy, so he smiled at her and offered no physical contact.
"I'm over in Collins," he commented. "We're practically neighbors. I'm sure I'll be seeing you around, Hazel. It was nice meeting you."
Jake suppressed a smile at the tone of her voice, "Yes?"
"If you find a good section of macroeconomics, would you call me, please?"
Jake didn't know if this was another test, but he knew the answer if it was, "If I find one with two open slots, sure."
After their lunch had come, Hazel said, "As I remember, I gave you far more than the time of day long before that day in the cottage. We talked at least once a week for a while."
Jake laughed, "That's true. And, you kept me on my toes the whole time. Then, you got really mad at me over a minor philosophical difference."
Hazel looked at him out of the corner of her eye, "It was hardly minor. What was it about again?"
"As I recall," said Jake. "you argued fervently that popularity was a quantifiable measure of quality--that the more people were willing to pay for something, the better it must be."
"I remember," said Hazel. "And you argued that my case meant that Britney Spears was a thousand times as good as the New York City Opera."
"I think you're half right," said Jake. "I mentioned the opera because I had bought tickets. But, Britney Spears would have been about eleven at the time."
Hazel raised an eyebrow, "You had opera tickets?"
Jake nodded, "I was about to ask you to come and see Carmen with me. But, you got really angry and refused to talk to me for like three weeks."
Hazel smiled at the memory, "I only refused to talk to you for a couple of days. But, you were so damned stubborn, you wouldn't call me."
Jake chuckled, "That's not quite how I remember it."
Doug looked up in alarm when Jake slammed the door to their room on the way in.
"Dude, I was sleeping," he said.
"Sorry," said Jake. "Door must have slipped out of my hand as I was closing it."
Doug wasn't buying it, "I take it she turned down your offer of a night at the opera."
Jake paced around the small room, "I didn't even get to make the offer. She is so goddamned intractable."
"You knew that the day you met her," Doug pointed out. "Why are you pissed about it now?"
Jake started to try to explain the nature of the argument. But, he gave up after a few sentences, "Never mind. It was a pretty minor philosophical point. It's not important. We've been farther apart on bigger issues. What it comes down to is that we finally started to get close, she got scared, and found an excuse to fight."
"This is like a Mount Everest thing, isn't it?" Doug asked.
"Not really," said Jake. "In her unguarded moments, she's amazing. And, I usually don't mind the dogmatic aspects. It shows a certain depth of passion that's locked away inside of her. But, she's using it to make sure I never get the key to that lock."
Doug looked him up and down, "You know, Jake. You're not a bad looking guy."
Jake smirked, "Thanks, Doug. But, I just broke up with Hazel. And, besides, I make it a rule not to date my roommates."
Doug rolled his eyes, "Very funny. I just meant that you've put an awful lot of time into chasing one filly when I've seen at least two girls throw themselves at you. And, I'm sure you could have had a ton more. Is this girl really worth it?"
"I thought so," said Jake. "But, I don't think anybody would be good enough for Hazel fucking Andrews."
"So," said Doug. "Come with me to the Delta Tau Delta party tonight. Wanda Pinskie will be there."
Jake considered the offer for about five seconds, "Yeah. All right. Let's go."
Over the next three weeks, Jake did his best to forget about Hazel Andrews. It turned out not to be nearly as hard as he thought. When he saw her again, she was sitting alone in a coffee shop they'd frequented several times together.
He nodded at her coolly, "Hello, Hazel."
"Are you here alone?"
He nodded again, "Yeah. You?"
She nodded, "I was just looking for somewhere quiet to read. Would you like to join me?"
"All right," said Jake. He'd given up on pursuing any kind of romance with Hazel, but there was no reason to shun her. "What are you reading?"
Hazel showed him. Jake nodded, "'The Romantic Manifesto.' I always found that one kind of dry."
"Me too," agreed Hazel. "But, there are some passages I never quite understood. What do you think she meant when she wrote..."
Jake raised his hands, "You know, I'm not really up to arguing philosophy today. Maybe we could talk about normal, human things."
"I guess we can do that," Hazel said doubtfully. "What have you been up to in the last few weeks?"
Jake gave her an abbreviated version of events. Most of what he'd done the last three weeks had amounted to a series of meaningless encounters with women who weren't looking to make a connection with him.
"That's great," she said. "You're looking good, Jake."
Hazel was being so normal that, for a moment, Jake considered trying to ask her out again. But, he pushed the thought aside. She was too skittish, too ready to bolt. If they did go out, she would just find another excuse to fight and run away again.
"You're looking tired," he said. "Is everything all right?"
Hazel shook her head, "I've been having trouble sleeping. I'm starting to wonder if I should be at college. And, it's keeping me up at night."
Jake frowned, "Damn, Hazel. If you don't belong at college, who does?"
"I don't mean that I can't hack it," said Hazel. "I just wonder if there's anything worth learning here."
Jake shrugged noncommittally, "I can't really decide that for you. I feel like I'm learning plenty."
Hazel looked down into her empty cup, "I should get going. Jake, would you like to grab some dinner tomorrow? We could talk about anything you like. We don't have to argue philosophy."
Jake shook his head sadly, "I don't think that would be a good idea, Hazel."
"Oh," she said quietly. "All right."
Seeing her deflated like that, Jake's heart went out to her. She'd caught his attention by being so clearly strong and independent. He knew he should be rid of her, but couldn't. So, he said, "I've got a study group tomorrow. How about Saturday?"
Hazel's smile lit up her face like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, "Sure. That would be great."
After their first date, Hazel let Jake kiss her. Once kissed, she warmed up to it. But, before he kissed her, she seemed to be bracing herself for something unpleasant.
After the second date, they fooled around on her bed. This time, there was no reluctance. Hazel was a willing, even eager participant. Things had progressed quickly. Jake was patient, Hazel less so. By the end of the evening, she lay naked on her bed while Jake was down to his pants. When he stroked her stomach and hips, Hazel took his hand and placed it between her legs. But, when Jake tried to follow his hand some time later with his tongue, she pushed him away. Jake didn't push his luck.
Their third date, they fooled around again, but in one of the lounges where they were limited to kissing and some furtive over-the-clothes touching.
On their fourth date, Hazel found another excuse to fight and broke up with him.
It was early spring before Jake heard from Hazel again. She called him.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Jake, I miss you."
Jake rubbed his temples, "I miss you too, Hazel. But, we're not good for each other."
"You were good for me."
Jake took a deep breath, "No, I wasn't."
"Jake, what's wrong with me? I thought we were pretty good together. Tell me the truth."
"The truth?" Jake asked doubtfully.
"Please," said Hazel. "I want to know."
"If I tell you the truth, I'm just going to sound like some horny frat boy trying to get into your pants."
"I know better," said Hazel. "Please, Jake. I need to know."
Jake took a deep breath and said, "You seem scared of intimacy. Every time we get too close for your comfort, you find some excuse to push me away."
There was a long silence before Hazel answered. Then, she said, "I could work on that."
Jake shook his head, even though Hazel obviously couldn't see him. Then, he said, "You should. But, I can't be there for it. I do hope you find happiness, Hazel. I really do."
He spent the next two weeks moping from class to class. This time, the idea of jumping from party to party and woman to woman didn't appeal to him. He even started to coast in class, knowing that his grades from earlier in the semester would carry him through to a passing grade with a minimum of effort.
Then, one day, he looked up in his life drawing class and there she was. She had just dropped her robe and was standing on the model's pedestal as naked as the day she was born and staring at him, her eyes narrowed with challenge, an enigmatic smile on her face.
After she was done posing, she came over to where Jake was drawing and looked at his drawing, "You do good work."
Jake chuckled, "It's not made-up saints or Jackson Pollock's sneeze, but I like it."
Standing close to him, she was dressed in a green, silk robe. Now, she let it fall open as if she didn't notice, "Can we get together some time?"
Jake didn't have to look at her or his drawing. What she looked like naked was burned into his memory from the first time he'd seen here that way. Taking a deep breath, he said, "All right."
They went out again for the rest of the semester. This time around, Jake sat her down and read her the riot act about expressing what she wanted and how far she was comfortable going. After that, things continued apace. But, as finals week rolled around, she started to become distant again and complain that things they'd been doing for weeks made her uncomfortable.
Jake was ready to break up with her for good, but decided to let things continue until the end of the year because it was easier than breaking up during finals.
Halfway through finals week, Hazel asked Jake, "Have you done any contracting?"
"Some," said Jake having an odd feeling of deja vu.
"My family has this summer cottage down by Atlantic City that needs some work. I'll be staying there this summer. Is there any chance I could talk you into doing some work on it and taking room and board as partial payment?"
Jake looked her in the eyes. They contained a clear challenge. Against his better judgment, he said, "All right."
Jake thought he knew what Hazel was angling for. He'd suspected it since their first contrived fight. But, he chose to ignore it, hoping that he could keep Hazel through traditional means. Now, he felt the gauntlet had been thrown. Any woman as obsessed with The Fountainhead as she was couldn't possibly drop all the hints she had and not expect him to get the message.
And the message was, "I want it like it is in the book. If you want me, take me. But, don't ask me to give myself to you."
As appealing as the fantasy was, Jake wavered back and forth on deciding whether or not that was what she wanted. If he tried it and was wrong, he would certainly ruin what they had and might even end up going to jail.
He decided reluctantly to take a wait and see attitude. A part of himself--a big part--told him that he was being played for a sap. But, the rest of him firmly told that part to shut up. He was happy being around Hazel and, with the alternative being returning to Mannsborough where his parents were going through a messy divorce, a few weeks at the beach with a coltish, but intriguing young woman looked pretty good.
Jake was standing in his bedroom with his arms crossed, looking out the window pensively.
"What are you doing?" Hazel asked. She was dressed in blue jeans and a green bikini top that matched her eyes. "I thought you were going to get ready for the beach."
Jake looked up towards the sky, "It's about to start raining."
Hazel came up and looked where he was looking, "There's not a cloud in the sky. And, the Weather Channel says today's going to be sunny and beautiful."
"The barometer is plummeting," said Jake. "I can feel it in the air. It's going to open up any minute."
"Jake," she chided gently. "You don't believe those old wives' tales. Do you?"
Jake smiled at her. Once, she would have been far more contemptuous of him if he'd suggested he could predict the weather better than the machines of the National Weather Service. As if on cue, the first crack of thunder rolled ominously in the distance.
"It's probably just heat lightning," Hazel opined. She might have been more convincing if the last syllable of her sentence hadn't been cut off by a whipcrack of thunder, much closer this time.
"All right," said Jake. "I'll just get ready for the beach, then."
The quality of light was already changing as thunderheads started to form at an alarming rate. Hazel finally looked doubtful, "Maybe we should check the Weather Channel again."
"Yeah," said Jake. "Then, it can tell us when it starts raining so we'll know we're actually wet."
Hazel scowled, but there wasn't much behind it, "I mean so that we can see if it's going to be a flash flood or a long storm."
"It feels like it's going to be a bad one," said Jake.
Hazel didn't comment. She stretched out on her on his bed stomach and flicked on the TV. Jake sat down next to her on the bed, bemused. When the first raindrops pattered against the roof, the television was still predicting, "sunny and breezy."
"Damn," said Hazel, rolling on her back and looking up at him with a pout. "I really wanted to go swimming. Now what are we going to do?"
"Well," said Jake, refusing to take the bait, "if you really want to go swimming, I suspect that the side yard will be flooded pretty soon."
Hazel sat up so that their torsos were almost touching. Jake's nostrils filled with the scent she was wearing--something floral and summery. She laid a hand on his shoulder, "I meant that I want to go to the beach. Mr. Weather Man, is there any way I could convince you to do your 'rain go away' dance to appease the wrath you have called down from the heavens for my having doubted your divinatory skills.
Jake took the back of her head in one hand and kissed her. It was a long, slow lingering kiss that implied a long storm to come as clearly as the thunderheads building up outside.
But, when she broke the kiss, she pulled away from him. Her eyes weren't on him. They were on a shelf he'd put up in the room earlier in the week.
"What in the hell did you do here?" she asked, rising up off of the bed.
Jake said unnecessarily, "I put up a shelf."
"It's clearly crooked," she announced imperiously. "Take it down and put it back up straight."
Jake, his mind still clouded by the kiss and the abrupt change in attitude, stood up next to her, getting annoyed, "It's perfectly straight. I made sure of it. I'll get my level and show you."
As he turned to go, Hazel grabbed his arm. When he turned to face her, she wasn't at all imperious. Her eyes were imploring, but held a hint of barely-contained mischief as well. Quitely, she said again, "Take it down."
Jake felt incredibly dense for not catching on sooner what she was trying to do. The feeling lasted only a moment, though, quickly replaced by a sense of long-suppressed urgency. The arm she wasn't holding snaked out. He caught her chin roughly in his hand, but was careful not to hurt her. Hazel's mouth opened in surprise just as he crushed her mouth with a kiss.
Hazel didn't try to pull away until Jake's other arm was firmly around her waist. Then, she broke the kiss by pushing against his chest with both hands. Jake let the hand holding her chin go so that he could hold her around the waist with both arms.
"Let go of me, you savage," she hissed. Jake didn't. Instead, he put both hands around her waist and forced her to lie back on the bed, using his size to keep her from bolting.
On the bed, he straddled Hazel at the waist, leaned down and kissed her again. Her hands balled into fists and pounded on his shoulders. But, as the kiss went on and his hands started to roam over her body, she unclenched her fists and stroked the muscles of his back through his shirt.
Knowing he was crossing the point of no return, Jake slid Hazel's top off and was relieved when she lifted her head to make it easier to slide off. When his head went to her breast, Hazel made an animal noise in the back of her throat. As he teased the nipple with tongue and teeth, she moaned his name and undulated beneath him.
While he had her writhing and moaning, Jake unbuttoned and stripped off his own shirt. Hazel drew away from his attentions to plant a flurry of kissed on his chest. At the same time, her hands eagerly worked at his belt and stripped off his pants.
But, when his hands went to her pants, Hazel grabbed his wrists. Jake was undeterred, unzipping her pants, then shucking them in a neat motion.
"Savage," she hissed. "Monster."
Jake chuckled, taking her hands from his wrists and pinning them above her head in one of his own hands, "At your service." His other hand parted her legs easily, one finger sliding inside of her, working the length of her, and teasing her clit.
In Jake's memory, the storm he had unleashed in Hazel was far more impressive than the one outside. Even as the thunder worked its way to a furious, rolling, cracking crescendo, Hazel's body seemed to be threatening to consume itself in its own passion. She panted, squealed, and moaned with an abandon nearly diametrically opposed to the way she comported herself in daily life. Although Jake knew that she would be insulted if he said it out loud, he could not help but think that she was losing the tightly-wound mask of a civilized human and becoming more like an animal by the moment.
When he positioned his body behind his hand, she wrapped her legs around his waist, pulling him in. Jake pulled his hand away, letting the motion draw him in, and guided himself into her.
In his most improbably fantasies, it had never been like this with Hazel. When he imagined such things, he seduced her and they made love. If he imagined her coming, it was in a ladylike, almost demure way with a minimum of fuss.
Jake had never misread a person more completely. Once he was inside of her, Hazel bit and scratched at him. She clung to him. And, when she came, she howled, matching the wind before drowning it out.
"You're smiling," said Hazel. "It's been a long time since I've seen you smile."
Jake hadn't realized he was smiling. Regaining his composure, he said, "I haven't had a lot to smile about recently. Neither have you, I would think. But, you're... you're being conciliatory."
Hazel gave him a dirty look, "You take that back."
"I mean it," said Jake. "You are. And, I've never seen you conciliatory. That's why I wonder if you're feeling all right."
"Finish your lunch," said Hazel. "And I'll tell you all about it."
After that stormy afternoon in the summer cottage, Jake kept waiting for a manufactured blow-up that never came. It took him almost a year to relax and accept that, once a certain threshold of intimacy had been reached, she stopped trying to push him away.
They ended up staying in the cottage the whole summer. By the time sophomore year came, she was a changed woman. She wasn't a different woman. She remained proud, headstrong, and fiercely combative. But, she relaxed. Now, when they fought, they invariably ended up fucking like wild animals. Of course, no one who hadn't heard her would have believed it. Still, dorm walls were thin enough that, as quiet as they had tried to be, her enthusiasm was soon a running joke among Jake's friends. Once she got over her initial embarrassment, Hazel took it with good humor.
More incredibly to Jake, she continued to pose for life drawing classes, even though Jake wasn't taking them any more. When he asked her about it, she countered with a question.
"Jake, do you think I'm beautiful?"
"I won't always be beautiful," she said. When Jake opened his mouth to speak, she went on, "You don't need to reassure me with platitudes. It's a fact of life. I just like the idea that, when I'm old and leathery, I'll still be young and pretty somewhere. Besides, Ms. Martinez, for all her godawful politics, actually teaches people to draw the human body as it is, not to some standard of awfulness. That must be a good thing. Right?"
The summer after sophomore year, they'd spent two weeks visiting his father in Mannsborough. After a few days, Jake noticed that his father was unusually quiet.
"Something up, pop?"
His father shook his head, "Nothing worth talking about."
"Try me," said Jake. "I got time."
"You really like this Hazel girl. Don't you?"
Jake grinned, "Yeah. I really do."
"She's a real firecracker. Isn't she?"
Jake nodded, knowing what his father was getting at, "She takes some getting used to. But, she's got a good heart."
His father nodded and smiled back, "I'm glad she makes you happy."
"She does, Dad. She really does."
"So," said his father. "You still planning on going to Atlantic City for your twenty-first?"
"I wouldn't miss it," said Jake. "I'm tired of playing poker with college kids."
"Just remember," his father admonished him. "Don't play with money you can't afford to lose. Nobody wins all the time."
After Mannsborough, they went to Washington D.C. It would have seemed an improbable location for either of them to summer. But, Hazel had been awarded an internship with the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Jake took a bus to Atlantic City to arrive just after midnight on his twenty-first birthday. Hazel came up a few days later after work. As she would tell Jake later, she stopped at the hotel, took a long nap, then came to the casino looking for him. By the time she found him, it was close to 3 AM on Saturday morning. Jake had been at the table for fifteen hours straight and hadn't shaved since he'd arrived on Wednesday.
"Jake," she said quietly. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
Jake mucked a moderately bad hand, rose, and said, "Deal around me for a bit." As he walked away from the table, he caught several sympathetic looks for the other players.
"Am I right in thinking those black chips are a hundred dollars?" she asked.