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Bittersweet and Sour; Tagging SansaSaver!
Topic Started: Sep 26 2015, 09:28 PM (904 Views)
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((Hazel Jung continued from Hot Problems))

Hey sweetie, that’s right. Just coming now xx

Without looking, Hazel hit the ‘send’ button on her phone screen and eased herself out of the cushy leather seat she’d been situated in for the last quarter hour. She knew it screamed of over-preparation, but something in her just wouldn’t let her precede Min-jae’s arrival by less than fifteen minutes. It’d given her time to calm down, at least – the hummingbirds of mild anxiety and nerves that’d been flitting through her having become thankfully subdued during her wait. The butterflies were still there, but that was to be expected after all. Was there ever a time when they weren’t?

She opened the camera application on her iPhone to give herself a final once over, but immediately regretted her decision as a bundle of flaws she hadn’t known were there flooded into her vision. After a half-second’s worth of self-criticism, however, Hazel shook her head and slammed her phone down onto the tabletop, inwardly chiding herself as she did so. No. She was being silly. This was a study date, nothing more, and what about that promise she’d made to herself? Sure, Min-jae seemed different from all the others, but that was exactly how she’d felt about Jacob and Isaac and all the other boys. She knew she couldn’t help having a crush, but she could control how she reacted to it. And letting herself fall head-over-heels so easily and back into that familiar spiral of dependence and self-loathing was not a path she wanted to take.

Hazel slung her handbag over her shoulder and slipped her phone into the back pocket of her jeans, before edging herself out of the booth she’d reserved for herself and Min-jae. After allowing herself a thirty second pause to ensure her breathing was nice and even and the first words out of her mouth wouldn’t be a shaky, incomprehensible mess, she confidently strode towards the entranceway, finally ready.

Her face instantly lit up at the sight of the boy before her as she stood in the doorway of the restaurant, the butterflies of just moments before subdued – but not fully vanished.

“Hey Jae,” she offered him a bright smile, and leaned in to brush her lips gently across his cheek. “How’ve you been?”
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“A long week, huh? Well, I won’t press you to tell me anything, but I’m here for you if you wanna talk or if I can help, okay?”

Inwardly, Hazel couldn’t help but realise just how much she was sounding like her mother when she spoke. Eu-ji’s parenting style had always been to reassure her daughter that she was there for her, but never to force a response out unless it was clearly necessary. It worked for the most part, and Hazel couldn’t help but apply the same reasoning to her friends – especially to those she was closest to. She really did hope that whatever had dragged down Jae’s mood was minor, but knew at the same time that trying to desperately wrangle a clear-cut answer out of him would likely have the opposite of her intended effect.

“And… I’ve been good,” Hazel replied to his final query, adjusting her seat so as to sit more comfortably. “Not too much has been going on. Studying, work, etc. I’ve got a track meet next Saturday, which should be exciting, though, and an audition tomorrow for The Laramie Project at the local theatre. So if that pans out well then hopefully I’ll actually have something interesting to talk about.”

She refilled her glass from the half-empty pitcher of water situated on the table, and took a long sip from it, smiling as the cool liquid trickled down her parched throat. Despite the refreshing breeze wafting into the room from the air conditioner affixed to the wall above the duo, the heat of the day was still somewhat getting to her. She figured much of that was likely due to how covered up she was, and although being overheated would be a good excuse to remove a layer or two, Hazel had decided early on that her clothing for this date – study date – ought to be fairly conservative. She didn’t want to seem like too much of a try hard, wanted things to go slowly, wanted herself to be perfectly happy if this whole rendezvous ended up with them remaining purely friends with nary of spark of romance between them.

After finished her water, Hazel picked up the spare glass she’d prepared just in case and offered to Jae, along with the pitcher.

“Water?”
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Hazel grimaced as Jae alluded to the actual purpose of their meeting, not wanting their catch-up to be cut short by a stream of formulae and equatorial problems. She wouldn’t mind doing so too much – it was still spending time with Jae, and the work involved wasn’t too much of a mental drain – but switching from idle conversation to a Mathematics tutorial was hardly desirable.

“Ah, people. I get it,” she said, tracing her finger around the rim of her glass, not wanting to pry unprovoked but ensure her sympathy for his situation was clear. “And yeah, this’ll be tough – but at least we’re not doing it at the last minute.”

She gave a half-smile, hoping it’d catch on; optimism wasn’t Hazel‘s strong suit, but she figured Jae could use a spoonful of it in his life at the moment. She’d had her fair share of rough weeks in the past, and hated the idea of one of her friends – because that’s all they were, and that’s all she wanted right now because she couldn’t want anything else, no matter how much her heart yearned for it – enduring one.

“Thanks! I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. And if I make it in, I’ll be sure to get you a ticket. That’s if you wanna come, of course.”

She didn’t have the greatest of faith in herself for the audition – she had the lines down-pat, but had found staging her monologue a little harder than she’d expected. The idea of coming across as awkward to the directors was one she utterly dreaded, but she didn’t want to throw all of her issues on Jae too, especially when they were undeniably impossible to compare. So acting positive about it was the least she could do, at least until she’d cheered Jae up some – which, as she considered the words of his vent, he definitely needed.

“Mmm. Can't help you on the whole work front, but you could always come over afterwards?" Mid-way through her sentence, Hazel began to realise the potential implications of her words, only letting them sink in once the final syllable had passed through her lips. The intention had been entirely innocent, but she knew that her reputation still held some weight, and she wouldn’t blame Jae for making an assumption. She stumbled over her next few words, the point she’d been trying to convey lost beneath a wave of burgeoning embarrassment. But before her pause stretched out even further and damned her even more, she managed to regain her composure and her voice.

“Like, I’m front of house on Saturday, and post-work rant sessions are much better with someone else to lend a sympathetic ear. And... with Mrs. Libermann, things’ll work out. She knows you’re a good student, and we all forget things sometimes. It’s human nature, after all.”

For a moment, Hazel had thought as though she’d covered all the bases, provided all the comfort she could think to give Jae, something that’d slipped past her throughout their whole conversation suddenly caught her eye. The unsteady manner in which he held his glass, the waver in his voice...

“Jae, you’re shaking...” As much as she tried to mask it, Hazel couldn’t help but let the sudden trepidation behind her words seep into their delivery, flying from her mouth with no time to consider them. “Can I get you anything?”
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Hazel’s gradually mounting concern for Jae threatened to wholly bubble over as she observed the unmistakable waver in his voice and his attempts to conceal the shaking in his hands. She found herself mimicking his act of balling his fingers into a fist to restrain herself from leaping to aid him, lest she worsen the situation or misread it completely. Instead, she forced herself to sit and listen to his explanation of why he was feeling this way, and his pleas for her not to think differently of him for it. Her heart truly went out to him, especially with his fears of her opinion of him being irreversibly altered. There’d been many moments where she’d found herself crying in her mother’s arms about her problems with boys or school and praying she wouldn’t think poorly of her for it, and she hated the thought of making someone else feel that way.

“Oh Jae,” she started; making sure every word that passed through her lips was carefully measured and thought out. “And I could never think badly of you. You’re sweet, and kind, and I’ve never had any reason to feel otherwise.”

She almost reached out to clasp his hands in hers, but found herself hesitating at the last moment. She didn’t want to scare him with any sudden physical contact, especially with her reputation, and so decided that she’d wait awhile longer to gauge whether it’d be an appropriate action. As she pondered on what to say next, her thoughts turned to what seemed to be causing him the most duress: smoking – or, more specifically, his overdoing of it.

Hazel’s own commitment with smoking was intermittent at best; she’d done so a few times, mostly in social situations, but never to the point where she could imagine developing a dependency on it. She could empathise with Jae, though; whenever she was under duress she would find herself reaching for her usual stress alleviators – her iPod or running shoes – even more than she usually did.

“Look, I get it. Life isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows and all that at the moment, so I can’t blame you for wanting to smoke.” She continued to choose her words carefully, fearful her next sentence might be overstepping the mark but simultaneously not wishing to stretch things out unnecessarily and subject him to more discomfort. “And I also know enough to figure that you’re having withdrawals. In which case, I usually keep a pack of Lucky Strikes in the break room just in case, so if you need one... I can go get them for you.”
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The slightest sensation of butterflies began in Hazel’s stomach as she noticed the hint of a smile on Jae’s face, inwardly cringing as she felt a warm flush wash over her own. She was glad blushes didn’t show up too strongly against her tanned skin, grateful she could avoid the embarrassment that would’ve otherwise arisen. She was even more glad that he’d accepted her offer of a cigarette, breathing a sigh of relief that the risk-ladenly forward nature of her question hadn’t pushed him away.

“That sounds perfect.” She slowly slid out of the booth and lightly brushed her hand over his shoulder as she started to move away. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She swept through the swinging doors that led into the break room and strode towards the bag she perpetually kept in there, filled with objects with which to entertain herself whenever business was lacking. After unzipping it, her fingers dove straight towards the bottom, searching for the quasi-familiar cardboard packet she kept tucked away beneath a book of Sudoku and a few packets of chewing gum. Withdrawing the box (along with an emerald green lighter), she stowed them into her back pocket and left just as quickly, not wanting to linger when she had such pleasant company waiting for her.

As she passed back into the main dining area and returned to where Jae remained seated, Hazel took a moment to reflect on what had drawn her to him in the first place. He was artistic - the works she’d seen him produce were astounding in their quality. He was interesting - she could have an actual quality conversation with him, never had to worry about awkward silences or the pool of topics drying up. He was cute, in a way she’d never found any boy before. But in other ways - the biggest way in her eyes - it was almost impossible to describe. There was just something there, pulling her towards him. She’d built back her defences so much since that day she’d overheard her friends in the library, heard them call her a slut so matter-of-factly, like it was such an inherent part of her as a person. She hadn’t let anybody in since then, but Jae made her feel that maybe, just maybe, she could.

Shaking herself out of her introspection, she pressed her hands against his shoulders and offered him a warm smile.

“Back! Shall we go?”
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“It’s algood,” Hazel replied, smiling as Jae handed the lighter back to her. “Helping a friend is much more important to me than any silly old Math homework.”

She contemplated for a moment whether she’d also partake in a cigarette; it had been awhile since her last one, and with her upcoming audition she could use the brief surge of relaxation. This audition would be her last one for awhile, unless some new show suddenly popped up out of nowhere, and the thought of going that long without doing some performance outside of school was a distressing one. There were many great things about Kingman, but acting opportunities weren’t one of them. She couldn’t wait to be in a bigger city, where there wouldn’t be multiple months between auditions, even if the chances of her securing a role would greatly diminish.

Hazel pulled another cigarette out of the packet and quickly set it aflame, inhaling deeply as the bitter taste tightened her throat and a plume of acrid smoke gently plumed around her. As she exhaled and felt the knot in her chest release and a wave of relief wash over her, she offered Jae another smile and readjusted her lean against the wall. She was feeling quite content, even if the circumstances that had led to their situation weren’t the most ideal.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had the opportunity to just unwind like this with a friend, especially not without it being planned in advance. The fact that they’d spontaneously abandoned their homework in favour of sneaking a couple cigarettes behind the back of her mother’s restaurant made the whole situation feel much more genuine and less forced. It wasn’t something she was used to with her typical group of friends; deep and meaningfuls were very rarely on the agenda whenever they hung out together. She sometimes wondered why she put up with them, when so many of their actions clashed with her worldview, but they’d been with her for longer than she could remember and letting go of them would be a painful experience for which she wasn’t at all ready. She just had to keep on hoping that graduation and college would maybe help them consider that Koreans weren’t the only decent people in the world.

She attempted another burst from her cigarette, idly lifting it to her lips and intaking a heavy drag. Her first puff might’ve been tolerable, but her second proved to be an altogether different experience; tears crinkled at the edge of her vision and her throat tore with a mighty burn as she hacked out a cough and tried to regain her breath despite the cloud of smoke caught in her lungs.

In hindsight, Hazel realised that maybe she wasn’t quite as used to them as she remembered.
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Wheezing harshly in a hurried attempt to release the smog clutching at her chest and reintroduce oxygen into her lungs proved to be an uncomfortable, but ultimately fruitful endeavour. Hazel’s hand rubbed against her throat, soothing it as the other ran across her eyes to clear her vision; now blurred from the dashing of tears that’d arisen during her hacking fit. As she inhaled deeply and offered Jae a weak smile, she realised she could at least take comfort in the fact that she’d chosen to forgo contacts today; making the situation just that tiniest bit easier to manage.

“I’m fine,” she managed, voice still roughened from her cough. “Looks like I won’t be playing any moody, cigarette smokers standing on abandoned street corners anytime soon, though.”

Not wanting his attention to be too preoccupied by her disruptive fit, Hazel’s mind raced as she tried to conjure up another topic to distract from her maladies. She preferred to keep the whole ‘damsel’ thing to the stage – she’d played enough of them in her time, and was in no mood to have life reflect art right now.

As she remained in thought, Hazel noticed Jae’s hand, still half-hovering by her shoulder, and her smile widened just a bit more. It was one of those cute little quirks, that awkwardness that made him so undeniably human that she liked about Jae. Too long she’d been chasing flawless, undeniable perfection – both in boys and in herself, and she was just beginning to realise that it was one’s flaws, their moments where everything was genuine and true, were what made them perfect.

It was then that the idea struck her – not too deeply, not enough for her to really consider where it might lead the conversation to – but for now, she knew it’d have to do.

“Are you excited for the dance? Sadie Hawkins, I mean.”
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Hazel rubbed her hands over her bare arms as Jae spoke, her displeasure at the situation he described etched clearly across her features. Henry wasn’t someone she tended to interact with on more than a cursory level, but he and Jae were closer than she’d ever seen two boys be. From the stories Jae had told her and the moments she and Henry had spoken in person, he’d only ever given her the impression of being a sweet – if slightly out-there (and honestly, who wasn’t) – guy. The idea of some girl taking advantage of him for some weird thrill just didn’t sit well with her.

“Ah, I get it. And that’s shit, honestly. I’d be happy to help you out if you needed anything.” She pulled her hair over her shoulders; a nervous tick she’d developed that arose whenever she tread dangerous waters, and one that refused to leave, no matter how much she tried to squash the habit. “Who’s he going with again?”

And then Jae asked whether she was going, and suddenly the opportunity she was hoping for was presented to her on a silver platter. His question was the perfect segue into the area of discussion she was hoping they’d travel down once she’d dropped the topic into the conversational pool. Sadie Hawkins didn’t have the prestige and memorability of prom, but it put her in a unique position that no other big school event did: she could be the asker. It wasn’t as though that was outlawed with any other dance, but it came with a stigma that she was none too eager to embrace – especially with her past reputation still out and about.

She contemplated bursting into a flood of explanations, saying that it didn’t have to mean anything, that it could just be as friends, that she didn’t have anybody else she wanted to go with as much as him – they all swirled around in her head like some torrential whirlpool. But as clarity returned to her mind, she realised that she’d better be served not by a deluge of harried, defensive words in case of rejection, but by a direct and to the point question. She was used to nerves before a performance, but they always seemed to disappear the second she was on the stage – if anything, they made it stronger. Why should asking Jae be any different?

“Yeah, I am, actually. And speaking of… I was wondering if maybe you’d like to go with me?”
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Scarlett McAfee was almost a complete non-entity to Hazel, but answering to Jae’s inquiry about her with a Mariah Carey-esque “I don’t know her” would be entirely unhelpful and not a route she was keen to take. However, given what she knew about Scarlett’s questionable music tastes, maybe emulating the pop diva would be an appropriate response – were this not a serious discussion over the dangerous nature of Jae’s best friend’s date. Instead, she wracked her brain for the handful of facts she could pull out about the fellow senior.

“I don’t know much about her personality,” she replied, recalling their brief interactions as pleasant, but nowhere near a good enough gauge of her psyche. “She takes tap at the same place I do dance, and I know she listens to like, 2000s music, but that sums it up, really.”

The Scarlett Dilemma found itself overshadowed somewhat by Jae’s reply to her invitation to Sadie Hawkins. As Jae stammered over his words, the ball of nerves twisting within her chest threatened to plummet violently down to the very pit of her stomach. Regrets were already beginning to worm their way in, accelerated by Jae’s reference to them going as ‘a thing’. There were plenty of boys in the past who’d thought of her as just that, and such unpleasant memories weren’t exactly welcome when her brain was already overwhelmed by the precarious position she’d placed her friendship in.

Then Jae found himself articulate once more, and the harried half-sentences and seconds of anxiety all paid off when he said the magic words. It wasn’t a poetic declaration, but there was more thought and genuineness in it than she’d been given in past instances of her and another boy going out. Too often they’d woo her as best they could, and once she’d let herself get in too deep then all that romantic façade would fade away and what they’d wanted from the start would make itself known.

In a way, it almost felt like the situations had been reversed – she was doing the asking, helping Jae out when he needed it. It was an uncomfortable thought, and she briefly entertained the notion of being wholly honest with him – spilling out her feelings and telling him that friendship was great but in an ideal world it wouldn’t just be friendship – making sure that all the cards were on the table, with no room for doubt from either party.

But she was frightened, and her asking Jae seemed to drain so much from him when he was already under stress; going further would just be selfish. And for now, being able to go to the school dance with the best possible date? That would be enough.

Hazel hadn’t realised that she’d clasped her hands together in her moment of panic. It wasn’t until she let her body unwind that she noticed her fingernails were digging sharply into her skin, leaving deep grooves in their wake. She found herself struggling to manage a reply to Jae’s agreement, almost audibly sighing in relief when he forewarned her about his parents’ penchant for photography.

“I’m one hundred percent down for all the pictures,” Hazel said, running her fingers through her hair in an attempt to return to a cool demeanour. “I like to think of it as practice for the paparazzi.” She finished, hoping the joke landed in the right spot to break the lingering tension she could feel winding around them.
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