THE SOUTHERN PART OF HEAVEN
A brief love story
BY Seamus Andrew Macdonald McGuigan
Hazel Hunter and I were born a month apart in Oxford, Mississippi - a university town that stole its name and purpose from the place in England, yet could well have been located on some distant planet for all the resemblance it bore beyond these two things. I would be lying if I said that I was not a child of the South - all of us born in that part of the earth are synthesized from the hot oil of its ancient lore, forever bound to hear it calling back through the ages no matter how far we may wander. Like every self-respecting Southerner, I have a taste for bourbon, a love for my country and great-great-grandaddy who died trying to split that country apart. Yet despite these things, I have spent my whole life feeling as though something was added in the process of my creation - a mutating substance that never allowed me to see the world through the same lens as my forbearers and contemporaries. Hazel had a similar addition, and this is what I imagine drew us together as children and glued our conversation even now. We met when we were about ten years old - I cannot recall how - I presume it was through our fathers, who both worked in the county courthouse and, from time to time, the law school - but I do remember that she was the first girl I ever noticed in more than passing. Perhaps, on reflection, I was the first boy she ever noticed, considering the fact we both had our first kiss that day - stealing behind a satin - white veil of magnolias so that her grandmother could not quite see us from her rocking chair on the porch. I may romanticize it now, but I recall it being quite lovely - the sweet scent of the magnolias dancing and intertwining with her waves of hair, the taste of the sugared tea that hung on her pure lips and the childish rebellion of it all - although it was an occurrence not to be repeated for another few years.
In the meantime, however, we remained inseparable friends into our teenage years. Those ages are tough on everyone, but Hazel had a particularly rough time of things. When she was fifteen, around Christmas, her father was shot dead on the way home from church by a dissatisfied client who was facing five years in prison for robbery. Her mother had died in childbirth, so this left her ancient grandmother as her only guardian. Her grandmother had come to resemble the very house that she lived in - faded but not defeated by the passage of time - and probably would have been a excellent guide for young Hazel had tragedy struck earlier. Unfortunately, Miss Hunter (as she was called even when Hazel was present) was simply too old to reign in the myriad desires of her granddaughter when required, and so the excesses of unbridled youth took their course. In truth - I am not in a position to elaborate on these excesses. Not because I was not party to them, but because I preferred to cast them from my mind and pretend they did not exist, imagining Hazel to be all pure and all innocent and all mine. Yet, overall, excepting the addition of the occasional college party I would loose her at or night I would have to carry her home drunk, our relationship remained largely the same, although now the stories she would tell me as we lay floating under the great expanse of Southern stars would make me lose sleep. To be fair, I can hardly reproach Hazel for her behavior during those years - I was pretty wayward myself - the only difference being my lack of an excuse for being so. I drank a lot, picked up a smoking habit, messed around with girls and ignored my studies. I say ‘messed around with’ girls because I never managed to sustain any kind of long-term relationship. At the time I put this down to the romantic notion that no relationship could compare to my friendship with Hazel, but, in retrospect, it was likely just because I was a teenage boy convinced that he was living amidst the golden years of his life. Indeed, it was a wonderful time and a wonderful place to be alive, albeit a confusing one - stuck as we were at the age where we think we know it all, but in reality know nothing at all. From Frat Row to Avent Park, the parties and the madness rolled every weekend like long golden clouds that showered whiskey rains on all of us below. I remembered nights in Phi Alpha, Kappa Tau and Omega god-knows-what that seemed to never end - nights where I would lose Hazel and find her again in fits of drunken joy, nights where the revelers were moral-less, the stories were timeless and the bottles were bottomless - and I suddenly found myself wanting nothing more than to go back, though back I could never go. That was seven years ago now, and even then the ground was shifting underneath our enviable fantasy, and all was soon to change in ways that I could never imagine.
Things got even better, and then they got worse - they often do. All tragedy is born out of ecstasy, I suppose. July the twenty-second of the summer before I left for college was (as is every summer night in Mississippi) a collection of perfectly clear and still hours that make little but a momentary dent in the languid, swampy air. It is difficult to describe completely the serenity of a Southern night - you simply feel alive amongst a divine respite in which the still-hot atmosphere hangs like a dampened shroud that quivers and wallows upon waves of sound: the hissing of cicadas, the clinking of ice in empty glasses and the calls to fill them up again. That night I had planned to meet Hazel at a party in one of the student houses to celebrate the occupants’ recent move-in a couple of weeks before the start of the semester, when there is very little to do in Oxford but celebrate. It was around about half past nine when I arrived, exchanging pleasantries with the co-eds I knew from similar nights, all of whom flocked to the upperclassmen houses to dance and drink ‘till they collapsed because they were young, because the real world was 20 miles down the highway, and because it was a Tuesday. The place was busy already, and I had to struggle through the crowd for quite a while before I met the eye of Gill Winthrop, my best friend at the time that wasn’t Hazel. I offered a hand that he grabbed swiftly and clumsily to his chest, wrapping his other arm around my back and patting with the bubbling emotion of a father welcoming his son home from war. I thought perhaps the relief was due because I had rescued him from the unceasing jabber of a sorority maven, but then I raised my head to look at his face. Gill’s eyes were wide and drunk, but from beyond the brown vacancy there seemed to pierce a look of worry as his dry lips and clenched jaw ground out hastened speech:
‘It’s Hazel, man. She had a fight with Pete. They were fucking hittin’ each other and everything!’
A rush of blood. Where the hell was she?
‘I dunno – she left just before you came.’
My breath leapt backwards into my lungs as I mumbled something about why were these bastards not stopping them and that he would fucking kill her. I had known Hazel's boyfriend, Peter Bourne, since I was in elementary school and I had never liked him. Pete was one of those kids who, even in youth, had a violent tumult of senseless cruelty buried inside them - the kind of unfounded anger that takes pleasure in suffering and can burst out unprovoked. I turned and left Gill without a word. My mind raved and rolled with the worst possibilities as I pushed past a group of blondes swaying out of time to music they did not know, stopping only to avoid the small waves of liquor that jumped out of their red shiny cups and splashed on the wooden floor at their feet as I moved them out of the path of the door. I made it to the door and exploded outwards, stumbling into a street bathed in golden halos and surrounded on either side by rustling elm trees. I went down the cobbled path and stood in the middle of the road - turning feverishly on the spot and letting the world spin and spin with growing pace until it all became a tumultuous blur of heat and shadow that merged and dissolved into a single muted color. But, from the midst of what remained, I was able to pick out the nameless face of one of Hazel's girlfriends - and sprinted dizzily towards her. She had seen me too, and shouted my name with drunken glee as I ignored the porcelain arms draped with sandy hair that she extended in my direction. The smile fell from her sun- burned face when she saw what must have been the morbid expression that I wore, which along with my labored breaths wordlessly let her knew that all was not well. Before she could speak, I wheezed:
The smile returned coyly to her face as she replied,
'She just ran past us, toward the station, she seemed pretty upset. Hey, can I borrow a smoke?'
I had started down the street before she could finish, only to be grabbed around the waist by a limp arm and cajoled back into the dead embers of the conversation.
'Haha, Rawwb! Come awwn, don’t be so rude! You know, I don't smoke normally, just when I'm tipsy! Now Hazel is a real smoker, she has a case and everything...'
The words tumbled from her mouth like congealed syrup, interrupted only by cackles and tussles of hair. I said nothing - deciding not to inhale too much second-hand stupidity and passed her a cigarette as I turned and headed towards my destination once more - finally managing to escape. I picked up my pace, practically sprinting for the station, which was five blocks down the road. At around twenty paces in, I heard the girl call to me -
'Thanks Rawb! I hope you find Hazel - she loves you, you know, you should really - '
All of my late teenage years in Oxford had felt as though they were lived in a great, broiling ooze - and as rest of her drunken drawl faded off into the night, they just seemed to thicken the air even more. But for now, I was drawn forward at a maddening pace, passing block after block without raising my glance from the middle of the road. The train station in Oxford is nothing to boast about - despite it being the only common connection with the outside world - it is a distinctly modest building, at least as I remember it. It possessed only a single story clad in red brick, crowned by a bare-faced clock tower and decorated with lily-white trellises that nothing grew up. The platform did not reach the railway, so the passengers were forced to haul themselves down seven stone steps, and then up onto the giant silver Amtrak carriages from street-level. I remember that, when I was a child, I would try to jump all of those seven elongated steps from the top to the bottom, only to be met time after time by grazed knees and dented pride. Yet every time I would get up and try again in the throes of the infinite possibility of youth. It was here that I found Hazel Hunter sitting - cross-legged and embraced by clouds of her exhaled smoke.
'Planning on skipping town?'
'Maybe. Depends on if you're coming.'
'Depends where we're going.'
'Nowhere - just leaving.'
As I got closer and saw more of her hunched figure, legs covered by a plaid blanket and eyes wet with pearlescent tears, her hair mangled into a madness of golden strands. I walked sideways, peering over my shoulder with my jaw clenched, prepared for whatever the next few steps would take me into - for whatever path she could drag me down. She choked up a few more tears, her entire body stuttering to rigidness then giving in to the emotion with a limp fall onto my shoulder. I felt the blanket graze upon my arm, damp and warm with tears that were being carried away by the slowly gathering breeze. I lent in.
'Grannie’s dead, Rob. She’s gone.’
She collapsed into my lap and sobbed uncontrollably, leaving me to stare out into the blank forest beyond the tracks and run my fingers through her hair.
'Oh my God... I’m so sorry.'
I was ashamed at how hard it was to sound surprised. Miss Hunter had been ill for quite some time, and I had been hearing updates on her deteriorating condition from a family friend in the University medical center. Hazel never talked about it though, and an eighteen-year-old boy’s ability to engage with emotion is such that it never occurred to me to bring it up. Even now, I probably would not know how to talk about it; some tragedy just gouges holes too deep be filled in with words, and this was one. This girl had, in her short burst of consciousness, lost more family than many people do before they start to make one of their own, she had barely had time to be together, and now she was alone.
‘What the hell am I going to do now, Rob?’
‘Well you still have us, we’re all here for you.’
‘To hell you are.’
Hazel rose from her covering, face red and jaw clenched as though the very air was pushing up against her face. I recoiled in her wake and almost slipped down a step. She saw my reaction, and covered up her mouth as she breathlessly sobbed again.
‘I’m sorry...I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you... I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay, I understand.’
‘It’s just, I couldn’t get a hold of Pete all day, and when I saw him tonight, he was so drunk he just laughed when I told him... He just stood there and fucking laughed at me.’
‘Why didn’t you call me?'
Hazel had turned on me again, flashing a cold, deathly stare.
‘This. Isn’t. About. You.
‘I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant, I’m just worried. Fuck him. He was never worth it.
'You’ve got much better things ahead anyway. You have a path - we all do.’
‘Oh do I Rob? Do I? These people - these drunk fucking morons - are my life – I’m not like you, I don’t have college. I’m stuck here.’
The stare fell away – she no longer looked incensed. She just looked tired.
‘Some fucking path.’
She pulled out a cigarette from her bag. The lighter cast dancing shadows and bounced orange light from her tear-strewn face into my wide eyes. I paused.
'Well then - fuck the path.'
Hazel let out a shot of laughter.
'Wow, I’ll believe it when I see it...’
Shaking her head, she took a few more draws of her cigarette in silence. ‘What do you mean?’
'Well, you going to drop out of college, Rob? Hmm? You going to leave the path?’
I stared at the ground, wordlessly answering her question.
‘I thought so...’
She took another draw, her hand limply holding her cigarette to her lips as she looked up at the stars, as though she was expecting to be drawn toward them by the smoke that surrounded her.
‘You know I’d follow you anywhere.’
‘You know I wouldn’t ask you to.'
The last gasp of ash fell from her cigarette and tumbled in a sparkling cloud down the side of the blanket as she turned to face me. Her hand lay in mine, kneading my joints between her red painted nails. Slowly she raised both of our hands to the side of my face and pressed them tightly to my cheek.
‘You haven’t changed, Robert. How did you manage it?’
‘It’s hard to change when you can only concentrate on one point.’
Hazel laughed and drew her hand away. My eyes were stinging.
'I just have to go, Rob, I can’t explain it. I feel like if I don’t go now I’ll just be stuck here doing the same fucking things, running round in circles that never change, seeing people that do nothing but get old. It’s like something’s eating me from the inside out. Don't you want to come with me?'
‘I want to.’
‘But you can’t, can you?’
I shook my head, grabbing my lip between my teeth as I saw my reflection in her wide pupils.
‘I’m so sorry.’
A tear dripped down her face again and she launched herself at me, shaking uncontrollably.
'I love you, Robbie. I really do.'
I wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed as tightly as I could, trying to strangle the wandering thoughts from her mind.
'Let's go back to my place, hmm? My parents are down in Jackson - we can sleep out on the porch?'
'Okay – help me get up.'
And so we wandered through the elm-lined terraces in silence, her arm around my shoulder when it wasn't wiping away tears. My house was close, and we were there in the white, linen bed on the sleeping porch in no time at all. Hazel tied up her hair and lay down first, with her head towards the window. I took off my shoes and lay down beside her - staring at the ceiling. Time passed, and she rolled over, rested her head on my chest and said,
'Promise me that everything will turn out okay.'
'Promise me, Robbie.'
'I promise. It's all going to be okay - it always turns out okay.'
I breathed out, closed my eyes, and as I blindly ran my fingers down her back, a cool breeze washed over us, the river roared once more and we melted together into the summer night.
'And then I never saw you again.'
From time to time - ever since I was a teenager- I have had cause to remember a Eugene O’Neill quote about the past happening over and over, always. The exact wording escapes me at the present moment, but it was certainly at the forefront of my mind when, by chance, I ran into Hazel Hunter at the Delmano late on a wet summer night. I was two martinis deep into my daily routine, preparing to head over to a party hosted by a writer friend of mine, when she tapped me on the shoulder and sang:
She swept up onto the stool next to mine and ordered a neat whiskey. She took a minute to settle herself, but upon seeing my ashen face, she blushed and let loose a delicate laugh that seemed to drift up and envelop the room in strange music only I had heard.
‘Of all the bars and all the lovers...’
‘I thought I’d never see you again...’
‘Well I made a promise. But you must hate me.’
I had not yet dared to lift my gaze from my drink, but now, as I met the depths of her bottomless green eyes, the mere appearance of this specter from my past had wiped away all that occurred since we last met and made me young once more amidst the stifle and safety of Mississippi. The names of the lovers and the bars vanished into air together, blown into jumbled pieces in my mind as I went over the madding progress of my aimless years.
The morning after our night at the station, I awoke to an empty bed, with the white curtains flapping softly against the rising sun, casting shifting shadows against my tired eyes. I had reached blindly over, expecting to find Hazel beside me, only to be left grasping at empty space and crumpled sheets. After I had blearily come to terms with her absence and noted that she was not in the bathroom either, I texted her urgently - 'Where are you?'
There was never any reply. The train had bad phone service.
'You know, I can still remember it.'
'You were mad...'
'Yeah, at first, but then it became something different.'
That night I drank more than I have ever drank before or since. For those last few weeks of summer, I continued to feel nothing, save a burning vibration that constantly ate at the back of my throat. I lived in a world that spun around separate from me, as though I was only looking at it through a pane of glass.
'I learned to hate it all.'
There was a silence as Hazel stared down into her drink and then finished it in an almighty gulp.
'I'm sorry. I really am Rob, I didn't mean to--'
The bell for last orders cut her off, and she couldn't do anything but stare into the middle distance, biting her lip. I had so much to say that I couldn't say anything at all - for fear of letting slip the grey twilight that had elapsed since her absence from my life.
'We should talk more – do you have somewhere we can go?'
'Yeah, in the Village.'
'How I felt when I found out you'd left.'
The cab took us over the Williamsburg Bridge, passing under electric blue lights that formed perfect lines. When we were half way across, the Manhattan skyline began to hover upon the horizon, framed by pillars of steel. Hazel suddenly took my hand and pressed it to her lap. I looked into those green eyes, reflecting fluorescent city blurs and we exchanged a gentle smile. There was serenity there, in that moment, a feeling of completion. It was as though for a second the tumult of all that had come before had spun in a circle and aligned itself in this time amidst the pulsating headlights. We arrived at my apartment, poured some bourbon, sat on my window ledge and talked until the sun was once again grasping at the edges of the city.
'I'm going back South.'
'To Oxford? Why?'
‘Because that’s what I do: I move.'
'I've heard it's all gone to shit - just sorority girls and drunk frat boys.'
'So it hasn't changed one bit then?'
She smiled coyly, placing her hand on the back of my falling neck.
'Come back with me. It'll all be far too sad if you're not there, I can't imagine it without you, I've never known it without you, I guess...'
'You know I can't - I've got to finish this piece for the magazine and then there's my book...'
'I figured you were going to say that.'
She recoiled back, ashed the cigarette she was holding and looked out the window.
'Fifteen years and I still can't get you to run with me.'
I stared out as well - and held back tears.
'Well, you were right, I'm stuck on the path.'
She breathed out heavily, held my hand and whispered,
'Fuck the path.'
Then she got down off the ledge, picked up her bag and motioned for me to come to the door.
'Ride with me to the station?'
We took a cab uptown to Penn Station, and descended into the madding chasm, shrouded in commuters. The grime from the tiled floor kicked up into my lungs and made me splutter and miss the digital sign that blinked ‘Crescent Line’, and I grabbed Hazel’s hand as the noise washed over me. I walked down onto the platform towards the train, and hovering squares of golden light beamed down through the smog onto my neck with a familiar warmth, and I dropped her hand and swiveled on my heels, unable to see her go again. But then, Hazel grabbed me, as I had always dreamed in those intervening times that she would grab me, turned my body into her arms, kissed seven years into my bones, and in an instant I felt as though the city had collapsed around me, leaving us warm and alone amidst a vast expanse of ashes.
‘Promise me that everything will turn out okay.’
'It will, I promise. It's all going to be okay - it always turns out okay.'
I took her hand again, the taste of sweet tea hanging on my lips.