Hazel never completely moved into Forrest’s apartment. She kept paying her rent in graduate housing, but she left more and more of her clothes, shampoo, shoes, and books, etc., at his place. Forrest made it easy for her to forget she had her own bed. He was an early riser, but he preferred that she sleep in, so that he could bring her morning coffee to her. Sometimes he’d slip under the covers and invite her to snuggle with him while he read the newspaper to her.
For a man who was a genius of comical newspaper reading aloud while snuggling in bed, Forrest’s looks were hard to take until you got used to him. Which in her case took a while. When she first saw him, the proportions of his face seemed so horrifyingly wrong that she thought she couldn’t bear to talk with him. His nose, forehead, and cheekbones looked like Picasso had surgically rearranged them when he was a baby—Picasso despairing over the human condition.
What happened to you? was the question that kept recurring to her when they finally did end up talking. She didn’t ask it out loud, but it took some will power. They were in the West End Bar on Broadway—a place they and their grad school friends went on weekend evenings. A brainless place, as she remembers it now. Evidently that’s what they both were looking for in their mid-twenties. You had to shout to be heard unless you wanted to stand really close.
What did they talk about? Their parents? God yes, the memory makes her cringe. Forrest had had an army colonel for a father and mean drunk for a mother. He’d grown up mostly at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Hazel’s father was a mid-level manager for Union Carbide, and her mother had taught high school art. Their idea of a wild time was a glass of Mogen David wine when her father came home from work. Hazel has always been stupidly ashamed of them.
“Hey,” Forrest had shouted, “I’ll trade parents with you any time. I’ll even throw in some uncles and aunts if you’re in the market for screwed-up relatives.” It wasn’t so much what he said as the way his mutilated face—even in the act of shouting—conveyed solidarity with her. And the way he took half a step closer to her, placed his arm feather-light over her shoulder and tried to speak softly. When she brings that moment back, it just about kills her.
Maybe she should have asked him. What’s wrong with your face. Most likely his answer would have been, Nothing, I was just born this way. He wouldn’t have been offended. He might even have been amused. After they’d become so caught up in each other that they spent every possible hour together—and this took months because Hazel couldn’t stop stifling her feelings—she glanced at Forrest one morning and had to catch her breath he was so fine-looking.
He was slouched in his reading chair by his apartment’s bay window that looked out on West End Avenue; she was on her way to the shower around 8 a.m. of a January morning. He had on a heavy wool sweater, he needed a shave, his thick hair was a mess, and he was so engrossed in what he was reading that he didn’t notice her walking on her bare feet from the bedroom to the bathroom. A shaft of edgy winter sunlight had fallen over him. She stopped and stood still.
The young man was illuminated like an angel in a 16th Century painting, though no painter with whom she was acquainted could have done justice to the tableau. His face was the issue—it still had that brutish structure. Well, she made herself admit as she studied him, that’s a wreck of a face, no doubt about it. But what the light accomplished was to reveal the extraordinarily sweet spirit that lay just beneath Forrest’s thick nose and heavy brows.
Hazel couldn’t make herself stop seeing the ugliness, but this ruthless light washing over him insisted she see both at once—the ruined and the radiant. She knew Forrest’s thoughts were far away from this worldly moment in which she stood gazing at him. It would embarrass him to catch her ogling him, but she had no intention of moving until she’d finished feasting on the sight of him. How I want that man! She shook her head to try to make it not so.
But it was so, and no amount of head-shaking would free her from the current of desire sweeping her toward some destination she couldn’t even imagine. Later the question would come to her, What does recognizing the physical beauty of another person have to do with genitalia and body fluids and the bizarre mechanics of mating? Or why does the one call forth the other? About those issues Hazel continued shaking her head for some months. To no avail.
While she stood frozen in her contemplation of Forrest, his eyes shifted upward from the page of his book to her face. Just before she noted that infinitesimal change in him, she’d become aware of the old blue nightgown she had on. It was the only one she owned that could keep her warm in his cold apartment, but it had a ripped shoulder and its former bluebell blue had faded into dirty-sidewalk gray. She’d caught the musty scent and knew it needed washing.
Hazel wasn’t one of those young women whose first thought about almost anything was What should I wear?, but right then, as Forrest’s eyes locked into hers, she really wished her appearance was better than she knew it to be. For one thing she was certain she had a severe case of bed-head that, along with the confederate-widow nightgown, probably made her look like an inmate in a mental-health institution. Forrest didn’t look away. Neither did she.
From her mid-teens Hazel had practiced what she now thought of as Subjunctive Theology. She believed in science. But she also knew that intricate currents of mystery constantly wafting through her life had made her invent a creator that possessed thoughts and feelings like a human being. She liked to think this creator regarded human antics with transcendent objectivity. And wouldn’t omniscience make you have a pretty good sense of humor?
In Forrest’s West End Avenue apartment that morning she sensed the two of them regarding each other with a human kind of detachment. She’d not only forgiven him his disarranged face, she’d comprehended that his might be the loveliest face she’d ever see. She shuddered to think maybe she’d just discovered love. But then she couldn’t help fearing what Forrest’s objective gaze might be making of her. He could be seeing a complete mess of a woman.
Excerpt from Hazel
David Huddle is the author of more than twenty previous books, including fiction, essays, and poetry. His novel Nothing Can Make Me Do This (Tupelo Press, 2011) won the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction, and his Black Snake at the Family Reunion won the PEN New England Award for Poetry. He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and the Rainier Writing Workshop. A native of Ivanhoe, Virginia, Huddle has lived in Vermont for over four decades.
Excerpt provided by Rhizomatic