This story is by Laura Shimer and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Hazel exited Saint Elizabeths’s and inhaled the crisp fall air, giddy with excitement about the upcoming weekend. Despite her relief at having a break from the rigorous nursing curriculum, she couldn’t stop thinking about one patient she saw on Tuesday. Or rather, the patient’s children. Hazel had grown up in a quaint farm town, the daughter of a remarkably strict father, and while she was pretty in her own way, she was plain-looking compared to the more worldly student nurses who had grown up in the city; her hair was mousy with a natural wave and she didn’t wear rouge; her father would never allow it. The patient, Catherine, lived in the city, and her daughter’s condescending stare under heavily mascaraed eyelashes made it crystal clear that she thought Hazel was below her standing in society. Catherine’s son, aware of his sister’s condescending attitude, gave Hazel an apologetic grin as she left the hospital room. Hazel marveled at how two people from the same family could be so different from each other.
Sighing, Hazel put her insecurities in the back of her mind and re-focused her thoughts on having a relaxing weekend. She and Peggy were attending a dance at the Belmont Dance Hall Saturday evening. Peggy’s date was a fellow named Poosie White, and he was going to bring along a friend to be Hazel’s date. The next afternoon, the girls primped and got dressed for the dance. Peggy, one of the city girls, applied mascara, a rosy rouge, and orange red Hazel Bishop lipstick on Hazel and styled her hair in soft waves. Hazel studied her reflection in the small mirror in their room, satisfied with the result of Peggy’s work. Even if she wasn’t thrilled with it, it didn’t matter; their dates were going to be there soon.
At seven o’clock on the dot, there was a knock on their dorm room door. It was Sister Alice letting them know that their dates had arrived. The girls made their way down the stairwell to the dormitory lobby, and Hazel stopped dead in her tracks. There was Poosie and his brother Ralph standing with two people Hazel immediately recognized as the kind son and judgmental daughter of the patient she took care of at the hospital earlier that week.
They recognized her, too. Poosie introduced them and the sister, Dolores, silently appraised Hazel. Raised eyebrows and almost imperceptible nod gave the impression that Dolores approved of Hazel’s appearance, but despite apparently passing Dolores’s inspection, Hazel became painfully aware of the simplicity of her navy blue circle dress, and she warily smoothed down the skirt. In sharp contrast to Dolores, Hazel’s date, Roger, was warm and friendly. He seemed genuinely glad to see her again.
The two block walk to the dance hall felt eternal. Dolores went out of her way to be friendly toward Peggy once she realized they had attended the same high school on the north side of town. She also went out of her way to completely exclude Hazel from their conversation. Hazel was grateful when they finally arrived at the dance and Dolores would no longer be focusing on her.
The couples entered the lobby of the dance hall, and Hazel could hear the band playing a rousing rendition of Dean Martin’s newest hit, That’s Amore. After a quick stop at the coat check, they walked into the main hall. It was crowded with people from all walks of life, which meant there were plenty of targets for Dolores’s scrutiny. Hazel and Roger danced a few dances, and then they sat down at one of the many tables that surrounded the large parquet dance floor. Roger purchased two Coca-Colas, and they spent a few moments watching the other couples dancing.
“Tell me about your family,” Roger said, breaking the silence.
Before Hazel could respond, Dolores and Ralph made their way toward them and sat down at the table.
“Roger, did you see that Rosie Cooper is here?” Dolores asked in an innocent tone. Then, much to Hazel’s surprise, she turned to her and with a wicked grin added, “Rosie was the Homecoming Queen when Roger was Homecoming King. Everybody thought that they made such a handsome couple.”
Clearly uncomfortable with the conversation, Roger’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment and he cleared his throat in response to his sister. Hazel stared at her lap and with a trembling hand smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle from the skirt of her dress. Dolores seemed satisfied with her work, and with a smug expression on her face she led Ralph by the hand back to the dance floor.
“Hey, do you want to get out of here?” Roger seemed desperate to get away from his sister. “We can walk down to Jimmy’s for milkshakes.”
Hazel knew Sister Alice wouldn’t approve of Hazel and Peggy splitting up, but she also needed to get away from Dolores, so she told Peggy that they were going to go to the diner.
“Is everything OK?” Peggy’s voice was full of concern.
“It’s fine! I’m just tired of dancing, and it’s too loud in here to talk.”
“Alright, then,” she answered a little hesitantly, “Poosie and I will stop by the diner to get you on the way back to the dorm.”
“Thanks, Peg,” Hazel gave her friend a quick hug and grateful smile, and she and Roger left the dance hall.
It had grown chilly outside. Roger took off his sport coat and placed it around Hazel’s shoulders. He kept one hand lightly on Haze’s elbow as they strolled down the uneven sidewalk. Finally away from Dolores’s critical eye, the conversation came quick and easy. Hazel told Roger about her family; she had two brothers and a sister, and Roger told her he had two sisters besides Dolores. Hazel shuddered at the thought of two more Doloreses. She hoped they were more like Roger.
“I’m sorry for my sister,” Roger said, “She has a tendency to be unkind toward women who she sees as threats.”
“Why would she see me as a threat?” Hazel asked, flabbergasted. “I’m a girl from a farm in Leetonia. I’m no threat to her.”
Roger’s dark eyes sparkled as he gazed at her under the streetlights. “You’re beautiful, and smart, and kind. Much kinder than she is,” he answered, affection in his voice. “You’re working hard to become a nurse, and she’s never had to work for anything in her life. As much as she might like to act like she’s superior, she’s envious of the opportunity you have in front of you.”
Hazel and Roger continued walking in silence. As they approached Jimmy’s Diner, Roger stopped and faced Hazel.
“Please, don’t let Dolores get to you. It doesn’t matter what she thinks, anyways.”
Hazel paused a beat, wanting to ask about Rosie Cooper. It was as if he could read her mind.
“And as far as Rosie Cooper goes, we barely knew each other in high school. We danced one dance together at the Homecoming, and that was the end of it.”
A breeze began to blow, swirling the fallen leaves around them. Roger tenderly pushed a stray tendril of her hair off of her face, and Hazel no longer felt mousy. Instead, she felt beautiful. He kissed her, and her heart skipped a beat. It felt like time stood still, and she suddenly knew what falling felt like.
Years later, as Hazel and Roger sat around their kitchen table first with their five children and then their 15 grandchildren, Hazel often looked back on that first night with fondness and, ironically, gratitude toward her sister-in-law, Dolores. After all, if she hadn’t treated her so poorly, Hazel and Roger probably would have never left that dance, never had that first kiss in the autumn breeze, and who knows, maybe would have never seen each other again.
Roger passed away in 2005, after 50 years of marriage to Hazel. Not long after he passed, Hazel’s memory began to rapidly fade, until moments of lucidity were few and far between. But no matter how far away her mind was, she never wavered in her memory of the night that she and Roger fell in love.