So I sat next to James, while he watched Hazel play, and kissed his cheek. Honestly, in his case, I don't even think I needed to do it. But he had a very nice cheek, and I didn't want to miss my chance. He'd shaved for the party, the little darling.
I was jealous of how he watched Hazel, drinking in her music like water and tasting how she dissolved herself in it like a sugar cube. None of the girls whirling by held anything for him. He was a neat sort of young man, very careful about his clothes, as though he dreaded the thought that his appearance might offend anyone. He shouldn't have worried. He wasn't exactly handsome, not at first glance, but there was something in those dark brown eyes that might cause Hazel to forget Chopin for a moment or two. If she would ever look up.
I slid onto the piano bench beside Hazel. She was so absorbed in her music that she didn't notice my arrival. Of course, almost no one notices me, yet all but the hard-hearted do sense a new mood. Perhaps it's my perfume. Perhaps it's something more. When I pass by, Love is in the air.
Of the young men present, some hadn't yet left for battlefields. Others were home on leave (medical or R & R). To their credit, the girls were wonderful about those with ghastly injuries, and made the wounded feel like princes. A few lads worked war production jobs in weapons factories. Some saw them as cowards shirking the battlefield, but this crowd of girls welcomed them in good humor. They were practical, these Poplar girls, and they preferred local beaux over absent loves. Some enterprising girls hedged their bets and held on to one of each. The young ladies worked in munitions factories and in private homes as domestic servants. Not long ago they'd all been in school.
And then there was Hazel. She played like the daughter of a duchess, raised under the eye of the finest musical tutors. But she was the daughter of a music hall pianist and a factory seamstress. Hazel's father pounded the keys at night to keep the wolf from the door, but he taught his daughter to love the masters. Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann and Brahms. She played like an angel.
James felt her angel music whoosh through his hair.
Poor James. He was in a predicament. The one girl to whom he'd like to speak carried the party's entertainment in her hands. To interrupt her would be unthinkable; to wait until the party ended would mean she'd disappear into the crowd.
She reached a refrain, and I lifted her chin toward James's watchful face.
She caught his expression in full. Both of them were too startled, at first, to break away.
Hazel kept on playing, but she had seen straight through those brown eyes and into the depths behind them, and felt something of the thrill of being seen, truly seen.
But music won't keep. So Hazel played on. She wouldn't look up at James again. Not until the song was over did she sneak a peek. But he wasn't there. He'd gone.
It's the quiet things I notice. Hazel exhaled her disappointment. She would've liked one more glimpse, to see if she'd imagined something passing between them.
Hazel, my dear, you're an idiot, she told herself.
"Excuse me," said a voice beside her.
First Dance—November 23, 1917
Hazel turned to see a forest-green necktie tucked carefully into a gray tweed jacket, and above it all, the face of the young man with the dark brown eyes.
"Oh," said Hazel. She stood up quickly.
"Hello," he said very seriously. Almost as if it were an apology.
His face was grave, his figure slim, his shoes shined, and his dress shirt crisp. Hazel watched his shoes and waited for the heat in her face to subside. Did those shoes contain feet like her father's, she wondered, with hair on top? Stupid, stupid thought!
"I'm sorry," the young man said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"That's all right," Hazel replied. "I mean, you didn't." A fib.