Main People We Meet on Vacation
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I really enjoyed this book. It was easy reading and developed the characters well and had the fell of When Harry met Sally.
11 June 2021 (07:12)
Would totally recommend! I loved everything about this book, especially the characters! It was easy to follow their actions throughout the book and also understand their behavior. I have nothing to complain about here! Also, this story was just a perfect escape from reality !x
27 June 2021 (01:09)
I would just like to say that this fucking book made me cry. That is all. Just kidding this book was so good I deeply relate to Poppy so maybe that’s why I cried the whole way through reading it. 5/5 recommend reading it! (If you want to cry)
09 July 2021 (22:10)
Absolutely beautiful. Romantic and fun but still heavy and thoughtful. Perfect..
16 July 2021 (05:39)
Read 62 pages and overall never caught my attention even though I was a quarter way through the book. IT WAS TORTURE. Wanted to read it before we left for Jacksonville but I think it was just a waste of time. It was very confusing and it kept going everywhere without any sense of direction, it kept skipping from one summer to the next in non chronological order and the characters were VERY bland and boring. The book shared many unimportant details and conversations like the one in which Alex and Poppy talked in the car which hadn’t really had an impact on anything, the conversation they had at the bar at the beginning of the story that ended up leading to nothing. AND OVERALL EVERYTHING KEPT LEADING TO NOTHING!!! I still don’t understand what the “friendship”between them was because out of the pages I managed to read there was no strong bond between them and it was more them just going around awkwardly. I don’t recommend this book at ALL. DONT WASTE YOUR TIME.
03 August 2021 (00:36)
Totally recommended if you are looking for a summer vibe romance with an amazing development of both characters
08 August 2021 (23:12)
I love the book. Out of 5 books I've read from tiktok and YT recommendations, this is the only that I can totally say I enjoyed reading. It's quite confusing at first but I eventually got used to the timeline changes so it's fine. But uhm just be aware of the ending because it's kinda cliché-y and cringey or maybe it's just me. It's worth the read though so you might as well do too if you're looking for recommendation while reading this. And I'd say it's 5/5 for me.
10 August 2021 (07:16)
well it was the best book i have ever read and im normally more into enemies to lovers but this changed my whole perspective
24 August 2021 (20:14)
One of the best books I’ve read this year! Couldn’t put it down, now wishing I hadn’t finished it in one day.
26 August 2021 (02:06)
Oooh, a Beach Read spinoff..?
31 August 2021 (08:34)
IT'S SO GOOD, the story is great and the characters are so well written
12 September 2021 (18:15)
PRAISE FOR People We Meet on Vacation “Emily Henry is my newest automatic-buy author, and People We Meet on Vacation is the perfect getaway: a heartfelt, funny, tender escape that you wish could last forever.” —Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Two Ways “People We Meet on Vacation is a gorgeous slow-burn romance, full of sexual tension and tantalizing possibility. I fell head over heels for Alex and Poppy, and loved traveling all over the world with them both.” —Beth O’Leary, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Flatshare “A compulsively readable book full of sparkling wit, dazzling prose, and a romance that grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let me go.” —Abby Jimenez, USA Today bestselling author of Life’s Too Short “Emily Henry is a STAR! Deeply emotional and starkly funny, People We Meet on Vacation cements [her] as the Queen of Banter. Rom-com fans will swoon over this slow burn friends-to-lovers romance. Poppy and Alex are real and flawed and ultra-lovable, and their summer trips will scratch an itch for those of us who’ve missed traveling. A perfect summer read!” —Alexis Daria, bestselling author of You Had Me at Hola “An absolute delight: swoony, legitimately moving, and packed with witty banter that makes Alex and Poppy jump off the page. We are already waiting impatiently for whatever Emily writes next.” —Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, USA Today bestselling authors of The Royal We and The Heir Affair PRAISE FOR Beach Read “It’s in [the] tension that Henry’s writing truly sings—the accidental touches that linger, the hand-caressing beneath an Olive Garden table. Very few writers can capture this kind of pretending it didn’t happen while desperately wishing it would happen again, and it’s not only convincing but infectious.” —The New York Times Book Review “Once I started Beach Read I legit did not put it down.” —Betches “That Henry can manage to both pack a fierce emotional wallo; p and spear literary posturing in one go is a testament to her immense skill.” —Entertainment Weekly TITLES BY EMILY HENRY Beach Read People We Meet on Vacation A JOVE BOOK Published by Berkley An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC penguinrandomhouse.com Copyright © 2021 by Emily Henry Readers Guide copyright © 2021 by Emily Henry Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader. A JOVE BOOK, BERKLEY, and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Henry, Emily, author. Title: People we meet on vacation / Emily Henry. Description: First Edition. | New York: Jove, 2021. Identifiers: LCCN 2020036305 (print) | LCCN 2020036306 (ebook) | ISBN 9781984806758 (trade paperback) | ISBN 9781984806765 (ebook) Subjects: GSAFD: Love stories. Classification: LCC PS3608.E5715 P46 2021 (print) | LCC PS3608.E5715 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020036305 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020036306 First Edition: May 2021 Cover art and design by Sandra Chiu Book design by Ashley Tucker, adapted for ebook by Kelly Brennan This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. pid_prh_5.7.0_c0_r0 I wrote the last one mostly for me. This one’s for you. Contents Cover Praise for Emily Henry Titles by Emily Henry Title Page Copyright Dedication Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Epilogue Acknowledgments Readers Guide About the Author PROLOGUE Five Summers Ago ON VACATION, YOU can be anyone you want. Like a good book or an incredible outfit, being on vacation transports you into another version of yourself. In your day-to-day life, maybe you can’t even bob your head to the radio without being embarrassed, but on the right twinkly-light-strung patio, with the right steel drum band, you’ll find yourself whirling and twirling with the best of them. On vacation, your hair changes. The water is different, maybe the shampoo. Maybe you don’t bother to wash your hair at all, or brush it, because the salty ocean water curls it up in a way you love. You think, Maybe I could do this at home too. Maybe I could be this person who doesn’t brush her hair, who doesn’t mind being sweaty or having sand in all her crevices. On vacation, you strike up conversations with strangers, and forget that there are any stakes. If it turns out impossibly awkward, who cares? You’ll never see them again! You’re whoever you want to be. You can do whatever you want. Okay, so maybe not whatever you want. Sometimes the weather forces you into a particular situation, such as the one I’m in now, and you have to find second-rate ways to entertain yourself as you wait out the rain. On my way out of the bathroom, I pause. Partly, this is because I’m still working on my game plan. Mostly, though, it’s because the floor is so sticky that I lose my sandal and have to hobble back for it. I love everything about this place in theory, but in practice, I think letting my bare foot touch the anonymous filth on the laminate might be a good way to contract one of those rare diseases kept in the refrigerated vials of a secret CDC facility. I dance-hop back to my shoe, slip my toes through the thin orange straps, and turn to survey the bar: the press of sticky bodies; the lazy whorl of thatched fans overhead; the door propped open so that, occasionally, a burst of rain rips in off the black night to cool the sweating crowd. In the corner, a jukebox haloed in neon light plays the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You.” It’s a resort town but a locals’ bar, free of printed sundresses and Tommy Bahama shirts, though also sadly lacking in cocktails garnished with spears of tropical fruit. If not for the storm, I would’ve chosen somewhere else for my last night in town. All week long the rain has been so bad, the thunder so constant, that my dreams of sandy white beaches and glossy speedboats were dashed, and I along with the rest of the disappointed vacationers have spent my days pounding piña coladas in any crammed tourist trap I could find. Tonight, though, I couldn’t take any more dense crowds, long wait times, or gray-haired men in wedding rings drunkenly winking at me over their wives’ shoulders. Thus I found myself here. In a sticky-floored bar called only BAR, scouring the meager crowd for my target. He’s sitting at the corner of BAR’s bar itself. A man about my age, twenty-five, sandy haired and tall with broad shoulders, though so hunched you might not notice either of these last two facts on first glance. His head is bent over his phone, a look of quiet concentration visible in his profile. His teeth worry at his full bottom lip as his finger slowly swipes across the screen. Though not Disney World–level packed, this place is loud. Halfway between the jukebox crooning creepy late-fifties tunes and the mounted TV opposite it, from which a weatherman shouts about record-breaking rain, there’s a gaggle of men with identical hacking laughs that keep bursting out all at once. At the far end of the bar, the bartender keeps smacking the counter for emphasis as she chats up a yellow-haired woman. The storm’s got the whole island feeling restless, and the cheap beer has everyone feeling rowdy. But the sandy-haired man sitting on the corner stool has a stillness that makes him stick out. Actually, everything about him screams that he doesn’t belong here. Despite the eighty-something-degree weather and one-million-percent humidity, he’s dressed in a rumpled long-sleeve button-up and navy blue trousers. He’s also suspiciously devoid of a tan, as well as any laughter, mirth, levity, etc. Bingo. I push a fistful of blond waves out of my face and set off toward him. As I approach, his eyes stay fixed on his phone, his finger slowly dragging whatever he’s reading up the screen. I catch the bolded words CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE. He’s fully reading a book at a bar. I swing my hip into the bar and slide my elbow over it as I face him. “Hey, tiger.” His hazel eyes slowly lift to my face, blink. “Hi?” “Do you come here often?” He studies me for a minute, visibly weighing potential replies. “No,” he says finally. “I don’t live here.” “Oh,” I say, but before I can get out any more, he goes on. “And even if I did, I have a cat with a lot of medical needs that require specialized care. Makes it hard to get out.” I frown at just about every part of that sentence. “I’m so sorry,” I recover. “It must be awful to be dealing with all that while also coping with a death.” His brow crinkles. “A death?” I wave a hand in a tight circle, gesturing to his getup. “Aren’t you in town for a funeral?” His mouth presses tight. “I am not.” “Then what brings you to town?” “A friend.” His eyes drop to his phone. “Lives here?” I guess. “Dragged me,” he corrects. “For vacation.” He says this last word with some disdain. I roll my eyes. “No way! Away from your cat? With no good excuse except for enjoyment and merrymaking? Are you sure this person can really be called a friend?” “Less sure every second,” he says without looking up. He’s not giving me much to work with, but I’m not giving up. “So,” I forge ahead. “What’s this friend like? Hot? Smart? Loaded?” “Short,” he says, still reading. “Loud. Never shuts up. Spills on every single article of clothing either of us wears, has horrible romantic taste, sobs through those commercials for community college—the ones where the single mom is staying up late at her computer and then, when she falls asleep, her kid drapes a blanket over her shoulders and smiles because he’s so proud of her? What else? Oh, she’s obsessed with shitty dive bars that smell like salmonella. I’m afraid to even drink the bottled beer here—have you seen the Yelp reviews for this place?” “Are you kidding right now?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest. “Well,” he says, “salmonella doesn’t have a smell, but yes, Poppy, you are short.” “Alex!” I swat his bicep, breaking character. “I’m trying to help you!” He rubs his arm. “Help me how?” “I know Sarah broke your heart, but you need to get back out there. And when a hot babe approaches you at a bar, the number one thing you should not bring up is your codependent relationship with your asshole cat.” “First of all, Flannery O’Connor is not an asshole,” he says. “She’s shy.” “She’s evil.” “She just doesn’t like you,” he insists. “You have strong dog energy.” “All I’ve ever done is try to pet her,” I say. “Why have a pet who doesn’t want to be petted?” “She wants to be petted,” Alex says. “You just always approach her with this, like, wolfish gleam in your eye.” “I do not.” “Poppy,” he says. “You approach everything with a wolfish gleam in your eye.” Just then the bartender approaches with the drink I ordered before I ducked into the bathroom. “Miss?” she says. “Your margarita.” She spins the frosted glass down the bar toward me, and a ping of excited thirst hits the back of my throat as I catch it. I swipe it up so quickly that a fair amount of tequila sloshes over the lip, and with a preternatural and highly practiced speed, Alex jerks my other arm off the bar before it can get liquor splattered on it. “See? Wolfish gleam,” Alex says quietly, seriously, the way he delivers pretty much every word he ever says to me except on those rare and sacred nights when Weirdo Alex comes out and I get to watch him, like, lie on the floor fake-sobbing into a microphone at karaoke, his sandy hair sticking up in every direction and wrinkly dress shirt coming untucked. Just one hypothetical example. Of something that has exactly happened before. Alex Nilsen is a study in control. In that tall, broad, permanently slouched and/or pretzel-folded body of his, there’s a surplus of stoicism (the result of being the oldest child of a widower with the most vocal anxiety of anyone I’ve ever met) and a stockpile of repression (the result of a strict religious upbringing in direct opposition to most of his passions; namely, academia), alongside the most truly strange, secretly silly, and intensely softhearted goofball I’ve had the pleasure to know. I take a sip of the margarita, and a hum of pleasure works its way out of me. “Dog in a human’s body,” Alex says to himself, then goes back to scrolling on his phone. I snort my disapproval of his comment and take another sip. “By the way, this margarita is, like, ninety percent tequila. I hope you’re telling those unappeasable Yelp reviewers to shove it. And that this place smells nothing like salmonella.” I chug a little more of my drink as I slide up onto the stool beside him, turning so our knees touch. I like how he always sits like this when we’re out together: his upper body facing the bar, his long legs facing me, like he’s keeping some secret door to himself open just for me. And not a door only to the reserved, never-quite-fully-smiling Alex Nilsen that the rest of the world gets, but a path straight to the weirdo. The Alex who takes these trips with me, year after year, even though he despises flying and change and using any pillow other than the one he sleeps with at home. I like how, when we go out, he always beelines toward the bar, because he knows I like to sit there, even though he once admitted that every time we do, he stresses out over whether he’s making too much or not enough eye contact with the bartenders. Truthfully, I like and/or love nearly everything about my best friend, Alex Nilsen, and I want him to be happy, so even if I’ve never particularly liked any of his past love interests—and especially didn’t care for his ex, Sarah—I know it’s up to me to make sure he doesn’t let this most recent heartbreak force him into full hermit status. He’d do—and has done—the same for me, after all. “So,” I say. “Should we take it from the top again? I’ll be the sexy stranger at the bar and you be your charming self, minus the cat stuff. We’ll get you back in the dating pool in no time.” He looks up from his phone, nearly smirking. I’ll just call it smirking, because for Alex, this is as close as it gets. “You mean the stranger who kicks things off with a well-timed ‘Hey, tiger’? I think we might have different ideas of what ‘sexy’ is.” I spin on my stool, our knees bump-bumping as I turn away from him and then back, resetting my face into a flirtatious smile. “Did it hurt . . .” I say, “. . . when you fell from heaven?” He shakes his head. “Poppy, it’s important to me that you know,” he says slowly, “that if I ever do manage to go on another date, it will have absolutely nothing to do with your so-called help.” I stand, throw back the rest of my drink dramatically, and slap the glass onto the bar. “So what do you say we get out of here?” “How are you more successful at dating than me,” he says, awed by the mystery of it all. “Easy,” I say. “I have lower standards. And no Flannery O’Connor to get in the way. And when I go out to bars, I don’t spend the whole time scowling at Yelp reviews and forcefully projecting DON’T TALK TO ME. Also, I am, arguably, gorgeous from certain angles.” He stands, setting a twenty on the bar before tucking his wallet back into his pocket. Alex always carries cash. I don’t know why. I’ve asked at least three times. He’s answered. I still don’t know why, because his answer was either too boring or too intellectually complex for my brain to even bother retaining the memory. “Doesn’t change the fact that you’re an absolute freak,” he says. “You love me,” I point out, the tiniest bit defensive. He loops an arm around my shoulders and looks down at me, another small, contained smile on his full lips. His face is a sieve, only letting out the smallest amount of expression at a time. “I know that,” he says. I grin up at him. “I love you back.” He fights the widening of his smile, keeps it small and faint. “I know that too.” The tequila has me feeling sleepy, lazy, and I let myself lean into him as we start toward the open door. “This was a good trip,” I say. “Best yet,” he agrees, the cool rain gusting in around us like confetti from a cannon. His arm curls in a little closer, warm and heavy around me, his clean cedarwood smell folding over my shoulders like a cape. “I haven’t even minded the rain much,” I say as we step into the thick, wet night, all buzzing mosquitoes and palm trees shivering from the distant thunder. “I’ve preferred it.” Alex lifts his arm from my shoulder to curl over my head, transforming himself into a makeshift human umbrella as we sprint across the flooding road toward our little red rental car. When we reach it, he breaks away and opens my door first—we scored a discount by taking a car without automatic locks or windows—then runs around the hood and hurls himself into the driver’s seat. Alex flicks the car into gear, the full-tilt AC hissing its arctic blast against our wet clothes as he pulls out of our parking space and turns toward our rental house. “I just realized,” he says, “we didn’t take any pictures at the bar for your blog.” I start to laugh, then realize he’s not kidding. “Alex, none of my readers want to see pictures of BAR. They don’t even want to read about BAR.” He shrugs. “I didn’t think BAR was that bad.” “You said it smelled like salmonella.” “Other than that.” He ticks the turn signal on and guides the car down our narrow, palm-tree-lined street. “Actually, I haven’t really gotten any usable pictures this week.” Alex frowns and rubs at his eyebrow as he slows toward the gravel driveway ahead. “Other than the ones you took,” I add quickly. The pictures Alex volunteered to take for my social media are truly terrible. But I love him so much for being willing to take them that I already picked out the least atrocious one and posted it. I’m making one of those awful midword faces, shriek-laughing something at him as he tries—badly—to give me direction, and the storm clouds are visibly forming over me, as if I’m summoning the apocalypse to Sanibel Island myself. But at least you can tell I’m happy in it. When I look at that photo, I don’t remember what Alex said to me to elicit that face, or what I yelled back at him. But I feel that same rush of warmth I get when I think about any of our past summer trips. That crush of happiness, that feeling that this is what life’s about: being somewhere beautiful, with someone you love. I tried to write something about that in the caption, but it was hard to explain. Usually my posts are all about how to travel on a budget, make the most of the least, but when you’ve got a hundred thousand people following your beach vacation, it’s ideal to show them . . . a beach vacation. In the past week, we’ve had approximately forty minutes total on the shore of Sanibel Island. The rest has been spent holed up in bars and restaurants, bookstores and vintage shops, plus a whole lot of time in the shabby bungalow we’re renting, eating popcorn and counting lightning streaks. We’ve gotten no tans, seen no tropical fish, done no snorkeling or sunbathing on catamarans, or much of anything aside from falling in and out of sleep on the squashy sofa with a Twilight Zone marathon humming its way into our dreams. There are places you can see in their full glory, with or without sunshine, but this isn’t one of them. “Hey,” Alex says as he puts the car in park. “Hey, what?” “Let’s take a picture,” he says. “Together.” “You hate having your picture taken,” I point out. Which has always been weird to me, because on a technical level, Alex is extremely handsome. “I know,” Alex says, “but it’s dark and I want to remember this.” “Okay,” I say. “Yeah. Let’s take one.” I reach for my phone, but he already has his out. Only instead of holding it up with the screen facing us so we can see ourselves, he has it flipped around, the regular camera fixed on us rather than the front-facing one. “What are you doing?” I say, reaching for his phone. “That’s what selfie mode’s for, you grandpa.” “No!” he laughs, jerking it out of reach. “It’s not for your blog— we don’t have to look good. We just have to look like ourselves. If we have it on selfie mode I won’t even want to take one.” “You need help for your face dysmorphia,” I tell him. “How many thousands of pictures have I taken for you, Poppy?” he says. “Let’s just do this one how I want to.” “Okay, fine.” I lean across the console, settling in against his damp chest, his head ducking a little to compensate for our height difference. “One . . . two—” The flash pops off before he ever gets to three. “You monster!” I scold. He flips the phone around to look at the picture and moans. “Noooo,” he says. “I am a monster.” I choke over a laugh as I study the horrible ghostly blur of our faces: his wet hair sticking out in stringy spikes, mine plastered in frizzy tendrils around my cheeks, everything on us shiny and red from the heat, my eyes fully closed, his squinted and puffy. “How is it possible we’re both so hard to see and so bad-looking simultaneously?” Laughing, he throws his head back against his headrest. “Okay, I’m deleting it.” “No!” I fight the phone out of his hand. He grabs hold of it too, but I don’t let go, so we just hold it between us on the console. “That was the point, Alex. To remember this trip how it really was. And to look like ourselves.” His smile is as small and faint as ever. “Poppy, you don’t look anything like that picture.” I shake my head. “And you don’t either.” For a long moment, we’re silent, like there’s nothing else to say now that this has been settled. “Next year let’s go somewhere cold,” Alex says. “And dry.” “Okay,” I say, grinning. “We’ll go somewhere cold.” 1 This Summer POPPY,” SWAPNA SAYS from the head of the dull gray conference table. “What have you got?” For the benevolent ruler of the Rest + Relaxation empire, Swapna Bakshi-Highsmith could not possibly exude any less of our fine magazine’s two core values. The last time Swapna rested was probably three years ago, when she was eight and a half months pregnant and on doctor-mandated bed rest. Even then, she spent the whole time video-chatting with the office, her laptop balanced on her belly, so I don’t think there was a ton of relaxation involved. Everything about her is sharp and pointed and smart, from her slicked-back high-fashion bob to her studded Alexander Wang pumps. Her winged eyeliner could slice through an aluminum can, and her emerald eyes could crush it afterward. In this moment, both are pointed squarely at me. “Poppy? Hello?” I blink out of my daze and skootch forward in my chair, clearing my throat. This has been happening to me a lot lately. When you have a job where you’re only required to come into the office once a week, it’s not ideal to zone out like a kid in algebra for fifty percent of that time, even less so to do it in front of your equal parts terrifying and inspiring boss. I study the notepad in front of me. I used to come to the Friday meetings with dozens of excitedly scribbled pitches. Ideas for stories about unfamiliar festivals in other countries, locally famous restaurants with colloquial deep-fried desserts, natural phenomena on particular beaches in South America, up-and-coming vineyards in New Zealand—or new trends among the thrill-seeking set and modes of deep relaxation for the spa crowd. I used to write these notes in a kind of panic, like every experience I hoped to someday have was a living thing growing in my body, stretching branches out to push on my insides, demanding to break out of me. I’d spend three days before pitch meetings in something of a sweaty Google trance, scrolling through image after image of places I’d never been, a feeling something like hunger growling in my gut. Today, however, I spent ten minutes writing down the names of countries. Countries, not even cities. Swapna is looking at me, waiting for me to pitch my next big summer feature for next year, and I’m staring at the word Brazil. Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world. Brazil is 5.6 percent of the earth’s mass. You cannot write a short, snappy piece about vacationing in Brazil. You have to at least choose a specific region. I flip the page in my notebook, pretending to study the next one. It’s blank. When my coworker Garrett leans toward me as if to read over my shoulder, I snap it closed. “St. Petersburg,” I say. Swapna arches an eyebrow, paces along the head of the table. “We did St. Petersburg in our summer issue three years ago. The White Nights celebration, remember?” “Amsterdam?” Garrett throws out next to me. “Amsterdam’s a spring city,” Swapna says, vaguely annoyed. “You’re not going to feature Amsterdam and not include the tulips.” I once heard she’s been to upwards of seventy-five countries and many of those twice. She pauses, holding her phone in one hand and tapping it against her other palm as she thinks. “Besides, Amsterdam is so . . . trendy.” It is Swapna’s closely held belief that to be on trend is to be already late to that trend. If she senses the zeitgeist warming to the idea of Toruń, Poland, then Toruń’s off the docket for the next ten years. There’s a literal list pushpinned into a wall by the cubicles (Toruń is not on this list) of Places R+R Will Not Cover. Each entry is in her handwriting and dated, and there’s something of an underground betting pool on when a city will be freed from the List. There’s never so much quiet excitement in the office as those mornings when Swapna marches in, designer laptop bag on her arm, and strides up to the List with a pen already out, ready to cross off one of these banned cities. Everyone watches with bated breath, wondering which city she’s rescuing from R+R obscurity, and once she’s safely in her office, door shut, whoever’s closest to the List will run up to it, read the scratched-out entry, and turn to whisper the name of the city to everyone in editorial. There’s usually silent celebration. When Paris was relinquished from the List last fall, someone broke out champagne and Garrett pulled a red beret out of a drawer in his desk, where he’d apparently been hiding it for just such an occasion. He wore it all day, jerking it off his head every time we heard the click and whine of Swapna’s door. He thought he’d gotten away with it too, until she paused beside his desk on her way out for the night and said, “Au revoir, Garrett.” His face had gone as bright as the beret, and though I didn’t think Swapna had meant it to be anything but funny, he’d never quite recovered his confidence since then. Having Amsterdam declared “trendy” has his cheeks flushing past beret red straight to beet purple. Someone else throws out Cozumel. And then there’s a vote for Las Vegas, which Swapna briefly considers. “Vegas could be fun.” She looks right to me. “Poppy, don’t you think Vegas could be fun?” “It could definitely be fun,” I agree. “Santorini,” Garrett says in the voice of a cartoon mouse. “Santorini is lovely, of course,” Swapna says, and Garrett heaves an audible sigh of relief. “But we want something inspired.” She looks at me again. Pointedly. I know why. She wants me to write the big feature. Because that’s what I came here to do. My stomach twists. “I’ll keep brainstorming and work something up to pitch you on Monday,” I suggest. She nods acceptance. Garrett sags in the chair beside me. I know he and his boyfriend are desperate for a free trip to Santorini. As any travel writer would be. As any human person probably would be. As I definitely should be. Don’t give up, I want to tell him. If Swapna wants inspiration, she’s not getting it from me. I haven’t had any of that in a long time. * * * • • • “I THINK YOU should push for Santorini,” Rachel says, swirling her glass of rosé on the mosaic top of the café table. It’s a perfectly summery wine, and because of her platform, we got it for free. Rachel Krohn: style blogger, French bulldog enthusiast, born-and-bred Upper West Sider (but mercifully not the kind who acts like it’s so adorable that you’re from Ohio, or even that Ohio exists—has anyone even heard of it?), and professional-grade best friend. Despite having top-of-the-line appliances, Rachel hand-washes all her dishes, because she finds it soothing, and she does so wearing four-inch heels, because she thinks flat shoes are for horseback riding and gardening, and only if you haven’t found any suitable heeled boots. Rachel was the first friend I made when I moved to New York. She’s a social media “influencer” (read: gets paid to wear specific brands of makeup in pictures at her beautiful marbled vanity), and while I’d never had a friendship with a Fellow Internet Person, it turned out to have its perks (read: neither of us has to feel embarrassed when we ask the other to wait while we stage photos of our sandwiches). And while I might’ve expected not to have much in common with Rachel, it was during our third hangout (at the same wine bar in Dumbo where we’re currently sitting) that she admitted she takes all of her photos for the week on Tuesdays, changing outfits and hair in between stops at different parks and restaurants, then spends the rest of the week writing essays and running social media for a few dog rescues. She fell into this job by way of being photogenic and having a photogenic life and two very photogenic (if constantly in need of medical attention) dogs. Whereas I set out to build a social media following as a long game to turn travel into a full-time job. Different paths to the same place. I mean, she’s still on the Upper West Side and I’m on the Lower East Side, but we’re both living advertisements. I take a mouthful of the sparkling wine and swish it around as I turn over her words. I haven’t been to Santorini, and somewhere in my parents’ overcrowded house, in a Tupperware box full of things that have absolutely nothing in common, there’s a list of dream destinations I made in college, with Santorini near the top. Those clean white lines and great swaths of glittering blue sea were about as far from my cluttered bi-level in Ohio as I could imagine. “I can’t,” I finally tell her. “Garrett would spontaneously combust if he pitched Santorini and, once I got on board, Swapna approved it for me.” “I don’t get it,” Rachel says. “How hard can it be to pick a vacation, Pop? It’s not like you’ve been saving your pennies. Pick a place. Go. Then pick another one. That’s what you do.” “It’s not that simple.” “Yeah, yeah.” Rachel waves a hand. “I know, your boss wants an ‘inspired’ vacation. But when you show up somewhere beautiful, with the R+R credit card, inspiration will appear. There is literally no one on earth better equipped to have a magical vacation than a travel journalist with a big-ass media conglomerate’s checkbook. If you can’t have an inspired trip, then how the hell do you expect the rest of the world to?” I shrug, breaking a piece of cheese off of the charcuterie board. “Maybe that’s the point.” She arches one dark eyebrow. “What’s the point?” “Exactly!” I say, and she gives me a look of dry disgust. “Don’t be cute and whimsical,” she says flatly. To Rachel Krohn, cute and whimsical is nearly as bad as trendy is for Swapna Bakshi-Highsmith. Despite the softly hazy aesthetic of Rachel’s hair, makeup, clothes, apartment, and social media, she’s a deeply pragmatic person. For her, life in the public eye is a job like any other, one she’s kept because it pays the bills (at least when it comes to cheese, wine, makeup, clothes, and anything else businesses choose to ship her), not because she relishes the kind of manufactured semifame that comes with the territory. At the end of every month, she does a post with the worst, unedited outtakes from her photo shoots, the caption reading: THIS IS A FEED OF CURATED IMAGERY MEANT TO MAKE YOU PINE FOR A LIFE THAT DOES NOT EXIST. I GET PAID FOR THIS. Yes, she went to art school. And somehow, this kind of pseudo performance art has done nothing to curb her popularity. Whenever I’m in town for the last day of the month, I try to schedule a wine date so I can watch her check her notifications and roll her eyes as the new likes and follows pour in. Every once in a while she’ll stifle a shriek and say, “Listen to this! ‘Rachel Krohn is so brave and real. I want her to be my mom.’ I’m telling them they don’t know me, and they still don’t get it!” She has no patience for rose-colored glasses and even less for melancholy. “I’m not being cute,” I promise her, “and I’m definitely not being whimsical.” The arch of her eyebrow deepens. “Are you sure? Because you’re prone to both, babe.” I roll my eyes. “You just mean I’m short and wear bright colors.” “No, you’re tiny,” she corrects me, “and wear loud patterns. Your style is, like, 1960s Parisian bread maker’s daughter bicycling through her village at dawn, shouting Bonjour, le monde whilst doling out baguettes.” “Anyway,” I say, pulling us back on track, “what I mean is, what’s the point of taking this ridiculously expensive vacation, then writing all about it for the forty-two people in the world who can afford the time and money to re-create it?” Her brows settle into a flat line as she thinks. “Well, first of all, I don’t assume most people use R+R articles as an itinerary, Pop. You give them a hundred places to check out, and they choose three. And secondly, people want to see idyllic vacations in vacation magazines. They buy them to daydream, not to plan.” Even as she’s being Pragmatic Rachel, cynical Art School Rachel is creeping in, giving her words an edge. Art School Rachel is something of an old man screaming at the sky, a stepdad at the dinner table, saying, “Why don’t you unplug for a while, kids?” while holding out a bowl to collect everyone’s phones. I love Art School Rachel and her Principles, but I’m also unnerved by their sudden appearance on this sidewalk patio. Because right now words are bubbling up that I haven’t said aloud yet. Sensitive, secret thoughts that never fully exposed themselves to me in the many hours I’ve spent lying on the still-like-new sofa of my uncozy, unlived-in apartment during the downtime between trips. “What’s the point?” I say again, frustrated. “I mean, don’t you ever feel like that? Like, I worked so hard, did every single thing right—” “Well, not everything,” she says. “You did drop out of college, babe.” “—so I could get my dream job. And I actually got it. I work at one of the top travel magazines! I have a nice apartment! And I can take cabs without worrying too much about what that money should go to, and despite all of that”—I take a shaky breath, unsure of the words I’m about to force out even as the full weight of them hits me like a sandbag—“I’m not happy.” Rachel’s face softens. She sets her hand on mine but stays silent, holding space for me to go on. It takes me a while to make myself. I feel like such an ungrateful jerk for even having these thoughts, let alone admitting them aloud. “It’s all pretty much how I pictured it,” I finally say. “The parties, the layovers in international airports, the cocktails on the jet, and the beaches and the boats and the vineyards. And it all looks how it should, but it feels different than I imagined it. Honestly, I think it feels different than it used to. I used to bounce off the walls for weeks before a trip, you know? And when I got to the airport, I’d feel like—like my blood was humming. Like the air was just vibrating with possibility around me. I don’t know. I’m not sure what’s changed. Maybe I have.” She brushes a dark curl behind her ear and shrugs. “You wanted it, Poppy. You didn’t have it, and you wanted it. You were hungry.” Instantly, I know she’s right. She’s seen right through the word vomit to the center of things. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” I groan-laugh. “My life turned out how I hoped it would, and now I just miss wanting something.” Shaking with the weight of it. Humming with the potential. Staring at the ceiling of my crappy, pre-R+R fifth-floor walk-up, after a double shift serving drinks at the Garden, and daydreaming about the future. The places I’d go, the people I’d meet—who I’d become. What is there left to want when you’ve got your dream apartment, your dream boss, and your dream job (which negates any anxiety over your dream apartment’s obscenely high rent, because you spend most of your time eating at Michelin-starred restaurants on the company’s dime anyway)? Rachel drains her glass and globs some Brie onto a cracker, nodding knowingly. “Millennial ennui.” “Is that a thing?” I ask. “Not yet, but if you repeat it three times, there’ll be a Slate think piece on it by tonight.” I throw a handful of salt over my shoulder as if to ward off such evil, and Rachel snorts as she pours us each a fresh glass. “I thought the whole thing about millennials was that we don’t get what we want. The houses, the jobs, the financial freedom. We just go to school forever, then bartend ’til we die.” “Yeah,” she says, “but you dropped out of college and went after what you want. So here we are.” “I don’t want to have millennial ennui,” I say. “It makes me feel like an asshole to not just be content with my amazing life.” Rachel snorts again. “Contentment is a lie invented by capitalism,” Art School Rachel says, but maybe she has a point. Usually, she does. “Think about it. All those pictures I post? They’re selling something. A lifestyle. People look at those pictures and think, ‘If only I had those Sonia Rykiel heels, that gorgeous apartment with the French oak herringbone floors, then I’d be happy. I’d swan about, watering my houseplants and lighting my endless supply of Jo Malone candles, and I’d feel my life in perfect harmony. I’d finally love my home. I’d relish my days on this planet.’” “You sell it well, Rach,” I say. “You seem pretty happy.” “Damn right I am,” she says. “But I’m not content, and you know why?” She plucks her phone off the table, flips to a specific picture she has in mind, and holds it up. A shot of her reclined on her velvet sofa, laden in bulldogs with matching scars from their matching lifesaving snout surgeries. She’s dressed in SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas and isn’t wearing a lick of makeup. “Because every day there are back-alley puppy mills breeding more of these little guys! Getting the same poor dogs pregnant over and over again, producing litter upon litter of puppies with genetic mutations that make life hard and painful. Not to mention all the pit bulls doubled up in kennels, rotting in puppy prison!” “Are you saying I should get a dog?” I say. “Because the whole travel-journalist thing kind of precludes pet ownership.” Truthfully, even if it didn’t, I’m not sure I could handle a pet. I love dogs, but I also grew up in a house teeming with them. With pets come fur and barking and chaos. For a fairly chaotic person, that’s a slippery slope. If I went to a shelter to pick up a foster dog, there’s no guarantee I wouldn’t come home having adopted six of them and a wild coyote. “I’m saying,” Rachel replies, “that purpose matters more than contentment. You had a ton of career goals, which gave you purpose. One by one, you met them. Et voilà: no purpose.” “So I need new goals.” She nods emphatically. “I read this article about it. Apparently the completion of long-term goals often leads to depression. It’s the journey, not the destination, babe, and whatever the fuck else those throw pillows say.” Her face softens again, becomes the ethereal thing of her most-liked photographs. “You know, my therapist says—” “Your mom,” I say. “She was being a therapist when she said this,” Rachel argues, by which I know she means, Sandra Krohn was being decidedly Dr. Sandra Krohn, in the same way that Rachel is sometimes decidedly Art School Rachel, not that Rachel was actually in a therapy session. Beg as Rachel might, her mother refuses to treat Rachel as a patient. Rachel, however, refuses to see anyone else, and so they remain at an impasse. “Anyway,” Rachel continues, “she told me that sometimes, when you lose your happiness, it’s best to look for it the same way you’d look for anything else.” “By groaning and hurling couch cushions around?” I guess. “By retracing your steps,” Rachel says. “So, Poppy, all you have to do is think back and ask yourself, when was the last time you were truly happy?” The problem is, I don’t have to think back. Not at all. I know right away when I was last truly happy. Two years ago, in Croatia, with Alex Nilsen. But there’s no finding my way back to that, because we haven’t spoken since. “Just think about it, will you?” Rachel says. “Dr. Krohn is always right.” “Yeah,” I say. “I’ll think about it.” 2 This Summer I DO THINK ABOUT it. The whole subway ride home. The four-block walk after that. Through a hot shower, a hair mask, and a face mask, and several hours of lying on my stiff new sofa. I don’t spend enough time here to have transformed it into a home, and besides, I’m the product of a cheapskate father and a sentimental mother, which means I grew up in a house filled to the brim with junk. Mom kept broken teacups my brothers and I had given her as kids, and Dad parked our old cars in the front yard just in case he ever learned to fix them. I still have no idea what would be considered a reasonable amount of bric-a-brac in a house, but I know how people generally react to my childhood home and figure it’s safer to err on the side of minimalism rather than hoarding. Aside from an unwieldy collection of vintage clothes (first rule of the Wright family: never buy anything new if you can get it used for a fraction of the price), there isn’t much else in my apartment to fixate on. So I’m just staring at my ceiling, and thinking. And the more I think about the trips Alex and I used to take together, the more I long for them. But not in the fun, daydreamy, energetic way I used to long to see Tokyo in cherry blossom season, or the Fasnacht festivals of Switzerland, with their masked parades and whip-wielding jesters dancing down the candy-colored streets. What I’m feeling now is more of an ache, a sadness. It’s worse than the blah-ness of not wanting anything much from life. It’s wanting something I can’t convince myself is even a possibility. Not after two years of silence. Okay, not silence. He still sends me a text on my birthday. I still send him one on his. Both of us send replies that say “Thank you” or “How are you doing?” but those words never seem to lead much further. After everything happened between us, I used to tell myself it would just take time for him to get over it, that things would inevitably go back to normal and we’d be best friends again. Maybe we’d even laugh about this time apart. But days passed, phones were turned off and on in case messages were getting lost, and after a full month, I even stopped jumping every time my text alert sounded. Our lives went on, without each other in them. The new and strange became the familiar, the seemingly unchangeable, and now here I am, on a Friday night, staring at nothing. I push off the sofa and grab my laptop from the coffee table, stepping out onto my tiny balcony. I plop into the lone chair that fits out here and prop my feet on the guardrail, still warm from the sun despite the heavy cloak of night. Down below, the bells chime over the door to the bodega on the corner, people walk home from long nights out, and a couple of cabs idle outside my favorite neighborhood bar, Good Boy Bar (a place that owes its success not to its drinks but to the fact that it allows dogs inside; this is how I survive my petless existence). I open my computer and bat a moth away from the fluorescent glow of its screen as I pull up my old blog. The blog itself R+R couldn’t care less about—I mean, they evaluated my writing samples from it before I got the job, but they don’t care whether I maintain it. It’s the social media influence they want to keep cashing in on, not the modest but devoted readership I built with my posts on shoestring-budget travel. Rest + Relaxation magazine doesn’t specialize in shoestring-budget travel. And though I’d planned to keep up Pop Around the World in addition to my magazine work, my entries petered off not long after the Croatia trip. I scroll back to my post about that one and open it. I was already working at R+R by then, which meant every luxurious second of the trip was paid for. It was supposed to be the best one we’d ever taken, and small slivers of it were. But rereading my post—even with every hint of Alex and what happened scrubbed out of it—it’s obvious how miserable I was when I got home. I scroll further back, scouring for every post about the Summer Trip. That was what we called it, when we texted about it throughout the year, usually long before we’d nailed down where we would go or how we’d afford it. The Summer Trip. As in, School is killing me—I just want the Summer Trip to be here already, and Pitch for our Summer Trip Uniform, with an attached screenshot of a T-shirt that says YEP, THEY’RE REAL on the chest, or a pair of overall shorts so short as to be, essentially, a denim thong. A hot breeze blows the smell of garbage and dollar-slice pizza up off the street, ruffling my hair. I twist it into a knot at the base of my neck, then shut my computer and pull out my phone so fast you’d think I actually planned to use it. You can’t. It’s too weird, I think. But I’m already pulling up Alex’s number, still there at the top of my favorites list, where optimism kept him saved until so much time had passed that the possibility of deleting him now seems like a tragic last step I can’t bear to take. My thumb hovers over the keyboard. Been thinking about you, I type. I stare at it for a minute, then backspace to the beginning. Any chance you’re looking to get out of town? I write. That seems good. It’s clear what I’m asking, but pretty casual, with an easy out. But the longer I study the words, the weirder I feel about being so casual. About pretending nothing happened and the two of us are still close friends who can plan a trip in such an informal forum as a postmidnight text. I delete the message, take a deep breath, and type again: Hey. “Hey?” I snap, annoyed with myself. Down on the sidewalk, a man jumps in surprise at the sound of my voice, then looks up at my balcony, decides I’m not talking to him, and hurries off. There’s no way I’m going to send a message to Alex Nilsen that just says Hey. But then I go to highlight and delete the word, and something horrible happens. I accidentally hit send. The message whooshes out. “Shit, shit, shit!” I hiss, shaking my phone like maybe I can make it spit the text back up before that measly word starts to digest. “No, no, n—” Chime. I freeze. Mouth open. Heart racing. Stomach twisting until my intestines feel like rotini noodles. A new message, the name bolded at the top: ALEXANDER THE GREATEST. One word. Hey. I’m so stunned that I almost just text Hey back, like my whole first message never happened, like he just hey’d me out of the blue. But of course he didn’t—he’s not that guy. I’m that guy. And because I’m that guy, who sends the worst text message in the world, I’ve now gotten a reply that gives me no natural inroad to a conversation. What do I say? Does How are you? sound too serious? Does that make it seem like I’m expecting him to say, Well, Poppy, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you BAD. Maybe something more innocuous, like What’s up? But again I feel like the weirdest thing I could do right now is willfully ignore that it is weird to be texting him after all this time. I’m sorry I sent you a text message that said hey, I write out. I erase it, try for funny: You’re probably wondering why I’ve brought you here. Not funny, but I’m standing at the edge of my tiny balcony, actually shivering with nervous anticipation and terrified to wait too long to respond. I send the message and start to pace. Only, because the balcony’s so tiny and the chair takes up half of it, I’m basically just spinning like a top, a tail of moths chasing the blurry light of my phone. It chimes again, and I snap down into the chair and open the message. Is this about the disappearing sandwiches in the break room? A moment later, a second message comes in. Because I didn’t take those. Unless there’s a security camera in there. In which case, I’m sorry. A smile blooms across my face, a flood of warmth melting the anxious knot in my chest. There was a brief period of time when Alex was convinced he was going to get fired from his teaching job. After waking up late and missing breakfast, he’d had a doctor’s appointment over lunch. He hadn’t had time to grab food after, so he’d gone to the teachers’ lounge, hoping it was someone’s birthday, that there might be donuts or stale muffins he could pick over. But it was the first Monday of the month, and an American History teacher named Ms. Delallo, a woman Alex secretly considered his workplace nemesis, insisted on cleaning out the fridge and counter space on the last Friday of every month—and then making a big deal about it like she expected to be thanked, though oftentimes her coworkers lost a couple of perfectly good frozen lunches in the process. Anyway, the only thing left in the fridge was a tuna salad sandwich. “Delallo’s calling card,” Alex had joked when he recounted the story to me later. He’d eaten the sandwich as an act of defiance (and hunger). Then spent three weeks convinced someone was going to find out and he’d lose his job. It’s not like it was his dream to teach high school literature, but the job paid okay, had good benefits, and was in our hometown back in Ohio, which—though to me, a definite negative—meant he got to be close to two of his three younger brothers and the children they’d started churning out. Besides, the kind of university job Alex really wanted just didn’t come up very often these days. He couldn’t afford to lose his teaching job, and luckily he hadn’t. SandwichES? PLURAL? I type back now. Please, please, please tell me you have become a full-fledged hoagie thief. Delallo’s not a hoagie fan, Alex says. Lately she’s been hot for Reubens. And how many of these Reubens have you stolen? I ask. Assuming the NSA is reading this, none, he says. You’re a high school English teacher in Ohio; of course they’re reading. He sends back a sad face. Are you saying I’m not important enough for the U.S. government to monitor? I know he’s joking, but here’s the thing about Alex Nilsen. Despite being tall, fairly broad, addicted to daily exercise and healthy eating and general self-control, he also has this hurt puppy face. Or at least the ability to summon it. His eyes are always a little sleepy, the creases beneath them a constant indication that he doesn’t love sleep the way I do. His mouth is full with an exaggerated, slightly uneven cupid’s bow, and all of this combined with his straight, messy hair—the one part of his appearance he pays no attention to—gives his face a boyishness that, when wielded properly, can trigger some biological impulse in me to protect him at all costs. Seeing his sleepy eyes go big and watery and his full mouth open into a soft O is like hearing a puppy whimpering. When other people send the frowny emoji, I read it as mild disappointment. When Alex uses it, I know it’s the digital equivalent of him pulling Sad Puppy Face to tease me. Sometimes, when we were drunk, sitting at a table and trying to make it through a game of chess or Scrabble that I was winning, he’d deploy the face until I was hysterical, caught between laughing and crying, falling out of my chair, trying to make him stop or at least cover his face. Of course you’re important, I type. If the NSA knew the powers of Sad Puppy Face, you’d be in a lab getting cloned right now. Alex types for a minute, stops, types again. I wait a few more seconds. Is this it? The message he finally stops responding to? Some big confrontation? Or, knowing him, I guess it’s more likely to be an inoffensive Nice talking but I’m headed to bed. Sleep well. Ding! A laugh breaks out of me, the force of it like an egg cracking in my chest, spilling out warmth to coat my nerves. It’s a photo. A blurry, ineffectual selfie of Alex, under a streetlight, making the infamous face. As with nearly every picture he’s ever taken, it’s shot slightly from below, elongating his head so it comes to a point. I throw my head back with another laugh, half-giddy. You bastard! I type. It’s one a.m. and now you’ve got me headed to the pound to save some lives. Yeah right, he says. You’d never get a dog. Something like hurt pinches low in my stomach. Despite being the cleanest, most particular, most organized man I know, Alex loves animals, and I’m fairly sure he sees my inability to commit to one as a personal defect. I look up at the lone dehydrated succulent in the corner of the balcony. Shaking my head, I type out another message: How’s Flannery O’Connor? Dead, Alex writes back. The cat, not the author! I say. Also dead, he replies. My heart stutters. As much as I loathed that cat (no more or less than she loathed me), Alex adored her. The fact that he didn’t tell me she died slices through me in one clean cut, a guillotine blade from head to foot. Alex, I’m so sorry, I write. God, I’m sorry. I know how much you loved her. That cat had an amazing life. He writes only, Thanks. I stare at the word for a long time, unsure where to go from there. Four minutes pass, then five, then it’s been ten. I should get to bed now, he says finally. Sleep well, Poppy. Yeah, I write. You too. I sit on the balcony until all the warmth has drained out of me. 3 Twelve Summers Ago THE FIRST NIGHT of orientation at the University of Chicago, I spot him. He’s dressed in khaki pants and a U of Chicago T-shirt, despite having been at this school for all of ten hours. He looks nothing like the sort of artistic intelligentsia I imagined befriending when I chose a school in the city. But I’m here alone (my new roommate, it turns out, followed her older sister and some friends to college, and she ducked out of O-Week events ASAP), and he’s alone too, so I walk up to him, tip my drink toward his shirt, and say, “So, do you go to University of Chicago?” He stares at me blankly. I stammer out that it was a joke. He stammers something about spilling on his shirt and a last-minute outfit change. His cheeks go pink, and mine do too, from secondhand embarrassment. And then his eyes dip down me, sizing me up, and his face changes. I’m wearing a neon orange and pink floral jumpsuit from the early seventies, and he reacts to this fact as if I’m also holding a poster that says FUCK KHAKIS on it. I ask him where he’s from, because I’m not sure what else to say to a stranger with whom I have no shared context apart from a few hours of confusing campus tours, a couple of the same boring panels on life in the city, and the fact that we hate each other’s clothes. “Ohio,” he answers, “a town called West Linfield.” “No shit!” I say, stunned. “I’m from East Linfield.” And he brightens a little, like this is good news, and I’m not sure why, because having the fact of the Linfields in common is sort of like having had the same cold: not the worst thing in the world, but nothing to high-five over. “I’m Poppy,” I tell him. “Alex,” he says, and shakes my hand. When you imagine a new best friend for yourself, you never name him Alex. You also probably don’t imagine him dressing like some kind of teenage librarian, or barely looking you in the eyes, or always speaking just a little bit under his breath. I decide that if I’d looked at him for five more minutes before crossing the globe-light-strewn lawn to talk, I would’ve been able to guess both his name and that he was from West Linfield, because these two facts match with his khakis and U of Chicago shirt. I’m sure that the longer we talk, the more violently boring he’ll become, but we’re here, and we’re alone, so why not be sure? “So what are you here for?” I ask. His brow furrows. “Here for?” “Yeah, you know,” I say, “like, I’m here to meet a wealthy oil baron in need of a much younger second wife.” That blank stare again. “What are you studying?” I clarify. “Oh,” he says. “I’m not sure. Prelaw, maybe. Or literature. What about you?” “Not sure yet.” I lift my plastic cup. “I mostly came for the punch. And to not live in southern Ohio.” Over the next painful fifteen minutes, I learn he’s here on academic scholarships, and he learns that I’m here on loans. I tell him that I’m the youngest of three, and the only girl. He tells me he’s the oldest of four boys. He asks if I’ve seen the gym yet, to which my genuine reaction is “Why?” and we both go back to shifting awkwardly on our feet in silence. He is tall, quiet, and eager to see the library. I’m short, loud, and hoping someone comes by and invites us to a real party. By the time we part ways, I’m fairly confident we’ll never speak again. Apparently, he feels the same way. Instead of goodbye or see you around or should we swap numbers, he just says, “Good luck with freshman year, Poppy.” 4 This Summer DID YOU THINK about it?” Rachel asks. She’s pounding away on the stationary bike beside me, sweat droplets flying off her, though her breathing is even, as if we were moseying through Sephora. As usual, we found two bikes at the back of spin class, where we can keep up a conversation without being scolded for distracting other cyclists. “Think about what?” I pant back. “What makes you happy.” She lifts herself to pedal faster at the teacher’s command. For my part, I’m basically slumped over the handlebars, forcing my feet down like I’m biking through molasses. I hate exercise; I love the feeling of having exercised. “Silence,” I gasp, heart throbbing. “Makes. Me. Happy.” “And?” she prompts. “Those raspberry vanilla cream bars from Trader Joe’s,” I get out. “And?” “Sometimes you do!” I’m trying to sound cutting. The panting undermines it. “And rest!” the instructor screams into her microphone; thirty-some gasps of relief go up around the room. People fall slack at bikes or slide off them into a puddle on the floor, but Rachel dismounts like an Olympic gymnast finishing her floor routine. She hands me her water bottle, and I follow her into the locker room, then out into the blazing light of midday. “I won’t pry it out of you,” she says. “Maybe it’s private, what makes you happy.” “It’s Alex,” I blurt out. She stops walking, gripping my arm so that I’m held captive, the foot traffic ballooning around us on the sidewalk. “What.” “Not like that,” I say. “Our summer trips. Nothing has ever topped those.” Nothing. Even if I ever get married or have a baby, I expect the Best Day of My Life to still be something of a toss-up between that and the time Alex and I went hiking in the mist-ridden redwoods. As we were pulling into the park, it started to pour, and the trails cleared out. We had the forest to ourselves, and we slipped a bottle of wine into our backpack and set off. When we were sure we were alone, we popped the cork and passed the bottle back and forth, drinking as we trudged through the stillness of the woods. I wish we could sleep here, I remember him saying. Like just lie down and nap. And then we came to one of those big, hollowed-out trunks along the trail, the kind that’s cracked open to form a woody cave, its two sides like giant cupped palms. We slipped inside and curled up on the dry, needly earth. We didn’t nap, but we rested. Like, instead of absorbing energy through sleep, we drew it into our bodies through the centuries of sunshine and rain that had cooperated to grow this massive tree protecting us. “Well, you obviously have to call him,” Rachel says, effectively lassoing me and yanking me out of the memory. “I’ve never understood why you didn’t just confront him about everything. Seems silly to lose such an important friendship over one fight.” I shake my head. “I already texted him. He’s not looking to rekindle our friendship, and he definitely doesn’t want to go on a spontaneous vacation with me.” I fall into step again beside her, jogging my gym bag higher on my sweaty shoulder. “Maybe you should come with me. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? We haven’t gone anywhere together in months.” “You know I get anxious when I leave New York,” Rachel says. “And what would your therapist say about that?” I tease. “She’d say, ‘What do they have in Paris that they don’t have in Manhattan, sweetie?’” “Um, the Eiffel Tower?” I say. “She gets anxious when I leave New York too,” Rachel says. “New Jersey is about as far as the umbilical cord stretches for us. Now let’s get some juice. That cheese board has basically formed a cork in my butthole and everything’s just piling up behind it.” * * * • • • AT TEN THIRTY on Sunday night, I’m sitting in bed, my soft pink duvet piled up on my feet and my laptop burning against my thighs. Half a dozen windows sit open in my web browser, and in my notes app I’ve started a list of possible destinations that only goes to three. Newfoundland Austria Costa Rica I’ve just started compiling notes on the major cities and natural landmarks of each when my phone buzzes on my side table. Rachel’s been texting me, swearing off dairy, all day, but when I reach for my phone, the top of the message alert reads ALEXANDER THE GREATEST. All at once, that giddy feeling is back, swelling so fast in me I feel like my body might pop. It’s a picture message, and when I tap it open, I find a shot of my hilariously bad senior photo, complete with the quote I chose for them to print beneath it: BYE. Ohhhhhhh nooooo, I type through laughter, shoving my laptop aside and flopping down on my back. Where did you find this? East Linfield library, Alex says. I was setting up my classroom and I remembered they have yearbooks. You have defied my trust, I joke. I’m texting your brothers for baby pictures right now. Right away, he sends back that same Sad Puppy shot from Friday, his face blurry and washed out, the hazy orange glow of a streetlight visible over his shoulder. Mean, he writes. Is that a stock photo that you keep saved for occasions such as these? I ask. No, he says. Took it Friday. You were out pretty late for Linfield, I say. What’s open apart from Frisch’s Big Boy at that hour? It turns out that once you’re 21 there’s plenty to do after dark in Linfield, he says. I was at Birdies. Birdies, the golf-themed dive bar “and grill” across the street from my high school. Birdies? I say. Ew, that’s where all the teachers drink! Alex fires off another Sad Puppy Face shot, but at least this one’s new: him in a soft gray T-shirt, his hair sticking up all over the place and a plain wooden headboard visible behind him. He’s sitting in bed too. Texting me. And over the weekend, when he was working on his classroom, he not only thought about me, but took the time to go find my old yearbook shot. I’m grinning hugely now, and buzzing too. It’s surreal how much this feels like the early days of our friendship, when every new text seemed so sparkly and funny and perfect, when every quick phone call accidentally turned into an hour and a half of talking nonstop, even when we’d seen each other a few days before. I remember how, during one of the first of these—before I would’ve considered him my best friend—I had to ask him if I could call him back in a second so I could go pee. When we got back on the phone, we talked another hour and then he asked me the same thing. By then it seemed silly to get off the phone just to avoid hearing pee hitting a toilet bowl, so I told him he could stay on the phone if he wanted. He did not take me up on it, then or ever, though from then on, I often peed mid–phone call. With his permission, of course. Now I’m doing this humiliating thing, touching the picture of his face like I can somehow feel the essence of him that way, like it will bring him closer to me than he has been for two years. There’s no one to see it, and still I feel embarrassed. Kidding! I reply. Next time I’m home, we should go get sloppy with Mrs. Lautzenheiser. I send it without thinking, and almost immediately my mouth goes dry at the sight of the words on-screen. Next time I’m home. We. Was that too far? Suggesting we should hang out? If it was, he doesn’t let on. He just writes back, Lautzenheiser’s sober now. She’s also Buddhist. But now that I haven’t gotten a direct reply to the suggestion, positive or negative, I feel an intense desire to push the matter. Then I guess we’ll have to go get enlightened with her instead, I write. Alex types for way too long, and the whole time I’m crossing my fingers, trying to forcefully will away any tension. Oh, god. I thought I’d been doing fine, that I’d gotten over our friend breakup, but the more we talk, the more I miss him. My phone vibrates in my hand. Two words: Guess so. It’s noncommittal, but it’s something. And now I’m on a high. From the yearbook photos, from the selfies, from the idea of Alex sitting up in bed texting me out of the blue. Maybe it’s pushing too hard or asking too much, but I can’t help myself. For two years, I’ve wanted to ask Alex to give our friendship another shot, and I’ve been so afraid of the answer that I’ve never gotten the question out. But not asking hasn’t brought us back together either, and I miss him, and I miss how we were together, and I miss the Summer Trip, and finally, I know that there is one thing in my life that I still really want, and there’s only one way to find out if I can have it. Any chance you’re free until school starts? I type out, shaking so much my teeth have started to chatter. I’m thinking about taking a trip. I stare at the words for the span of three deep breaths, and then I hit send. 5 Eleven Summers Ago OCCASIONALLY, I SEE Alex Nilsen around on campus, but we don’t speak again until the day after freshman year ends. It was my roommate, Bonnie, who set the whole thing up. When she told me she had a friend from southern Ohio looking for someone to carpool home with, it didn’t occur to me that it might be that same boy from Linfield I’d met at orientation. Mostly because I’d managed to learn basically nothing about Bonnie in the last nine months of her stopping by the dorm to shower and change her clothes before heading back to her sister’s apartment. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how she even knew I was from Ohio. I’d made friends with the other girls from my floor—ate with them, watched movies with them, went to parties with them—but Bonnie existed outside our all-freshman squad-of-necessity. The idea that her friend could be Alex-from-Linfield didn’t even cross my mind when she gave me his name and number to coordinate our meetup. But when I come downstairs to find him waiting by his station wagon at the agreed-upon time, it’s obvious from his steady, uncomfortable expression that he was expecting me. He’s wearing the same shirt he had on the night I met him, or else he’s bought enough duplicates that he can wear them interchangeably. I call out across the street, “It’s you.” He ducks his head, flushes. “Yep.” Without another word, he comes toward me and takes the hampers and one of the duffle bags from my arms, loading them into his back seat. The first twenty-five minutes of our drive are awkward and silent. Worst of all, we barely make any progress through the crush of city traffic. “Do you have an aux cable?” I ask, digging through the center console. His eyes dart toward me, his mouth shaping into a grimace. “Why?” “Because I want to see if I can jump rope while wearing a seat belt,” I huff, restacking the packets of sanitary wipes and hand sanitizers I’ve upended in my search. “Why do you think? So we can listen to music.” Alex’s shoulders lift, like he’s a turtle retracting into his shell. “While we’re stuck in traffic?” “Um,” I say. “Yes?” His shoulders hitch higher. “There’s a lot going on right now.” “We’re barely moving,” I point out. “I know.” He winces. “But it’s hard to focus. And there’s all the honking, and—” “Got it. No music.” I slump back in my seat, return to staring out the window. Alex makes a self-conscious throat-clearing sound, like he wants to say something. I turn expectantly toward him. “Yes?” “Would you mind . . . not doing that?” He tips his chin toward my window, and I realize I’m drumming my fingers against it. I draw my hands into my lap, then catch myself tapping my feet. “I’m not used to silence!” I say, defensive, when he looks at me. It’s the understatement of the century. I grew up in a house with three big dogs, a cat with the lungs of an opera singer, two brothers who played the trumpet, and parents who found the background noise of the Home Shopping Network “soothing.” I’d adjusted to the quiet of my Bonnie-less dorm room quickly, but this—sitting in silence in traffic with someone I barely know—feels wrong. “Shouldn’t we get to know each other or something?” I ask. “I just need to focus on the road,” he says, the corners of his mouth tense. “Fine.” Alex sighs as, ahead, the source of the congestion appears: a fender bender. Both cars involved have already pulled onto the shoulder, but traffic’s still bottlenecking here. “Of course,” he says, “people just slowing down to stare.” He pops open the center console and digs around until he finds the aux cable. “Here,” he says. “You pick.” I raise an eyebrow. “Are you sure? You might regret it.” His brow furrows. “Why would I regret it?” I glance into the back seat of his faux-wood-sided station wagon. His stuff is neatly stacked in labeled boxes, mine piled in dirty laundry bags around it. The car is ancient yet spotless. Somehow it smells exactly like he does, a soft cedar-and-musk scent. “You just seem like maybe you’re a fan of . . . control,” I point out. “And I’m not sure I have the kind of music you like. There’s no Chopin on this thing.” The furrow of his brow deepens. His mouth twists into a frown. “Maybe I’m not as uptight as you think I am.” “Really?” I say. “So you won’t mind if I put on Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’?” “It’s May,” he says. “I’ll consider my question answered,” I say. “That’s unfair,” he says. “What kind of a barbarian listens to Christmas music in May?” “And if it were November tenth,” I say, “what about then?” Alex’s mouth presses closed. He tugs at the stick-straight hair at the crown of his head, and a rush of static leaves it floating even after his hand drops to the steering wheel. He really honors the whole ten-and-two wheel-hand-positioning thing, I’ve noticed, and despite being a massive sloucher when he’s standing, he has upheld his rigidly good posture as long as we’ve been in the car, shoulder tension notwithstanding. “Fine,” he says. “I don’t like Christmas music. Don’t put that on, and we should be fine.” I plug my phone in, turn on the stereo, and scroll to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Within seconds, he visibly grimaces. “What?” I say. “Nothing,” he insists. “You just twitched like the marionette controlling you fell asleep.” He squints at me. “What does that mean?” “You hate this song,” I accuse. “I do not,” he says unconvincingly. “You hate David Bowie.” “Not at all!” he says. “It’s not David Bowie.” “Then what is it?” I demand. An exhale hisses out of him. “Saxophone.” “Saxophone,” I repeat. “Yeah,” he says. “I just . . . really hate the saxophone. Any song with a saxophone on it is instantly ruined.” “Someone should tell Kenny G,” I say. “Name one song that was improved by a saxophone,” Alex challenges. “I’ll have to consult the notepad where I keep track of every song that has saxophone.” “No song,” he says. “I bet you’re fun at parties,” I say. “I’m fine at parties,” he says. “Just not middle school band concerts,” I say. He glances sidelong at me. “You’re really a saxophone apologist?” “No, but I’m willing to pretend, if you’re not finished ranting. What else do you hate?” “Nothing,” he says. “Just Christmas music and saxophone. And covers.” “Covers?” I say. “Like . . . book covers?” “Covers of songs,” he explains. I burst out laughing. “You hate covers of songs?” “Vehemently,” he says. “Alex. That’s like saying you hate vegetables. It’s too vague. It makes no sense.” “It makes perfect sense,” he insists. “If it’s a good cover, that sticks to the basic arrangement of the original song, it’s like, why? And if it sounds nothing like the original, then it’s like, why the hell?” “Oh my god,” I say. “You’re such an old man screaming at the sky.” He frowns at me. “Oh, and you just like everything?” “Pretty much,” I say. “Yes, I tend to like things.” “I like things too,” he says. “Like what, model trains and biographies of Abraham Lincoln?” I guess. “I certainly have no aversion to either,” he says. “Why, are those things you hate?” “I told you,” I said. “I like things. I’m very easy to please.” “Meaning?” “Meaning . . .” I think for a second. “Okay, so, growing up, Parker and Prince—my brothers—and I would ride our bikes up to the movie theater, without even checking what was playing.” “You have a brother named Prince?” Alex asks, brow lifting. “That’s not the point,” I say. “Is it a nickname?” he says. “No,” I answer. “He was named after Prince. Mom was a huge fan of Purple Rain.” “And who’s Parker named after?” “No one,” I answer. “They just liked the name. But again, not the point.” “All your names start with P,” he says. “What are your parents’ names?” “Wanda and Jimmy,” I say. “So not P names,” Alex clarifies. “No, not P names,” I say. “They just had Prince and then Parker, and I guess they were on a roll. But again, that’s not the point.” “Sorry, go on,” Alex says. “So we’d bike to the theater and we’d just each buy a ticket to something playing in the next half hour, and we’d all go see something different.” Now his brow furrows. “Because?” “That’s also not the point.” “Well, I’m not going to just not ask why you’d go see a movie you didn’t even want to see, by yourself.” I huff. “It was for a game.” “A game?” “Shark Jumping,” I explain hastily. “It was basically Two Truths and a Lie except we’d just take turns describing the movies we’d seen from start to finish, and if the movie jumped the shark at some point, just took a totally ridiculous turn, you were supposed to tell how it actually happened. But if it didn’t, you were supposed to lie about what happened. Then you had to guess if it was a real plot point or a made-up one, and if you guessed they were lying and you were right, you won five bucks.” It was more my brothers’ thing; they just let me tag along. Alex stares at me for a second. My cheeks heat. I’m not sure why I told him about Shark Jumping. It’s the kind of Wright family tradition I don’t usually bother sharing with people who won’t get it, but I guess I have so little skin in this game that the idea of Alex Nilsen staring blankly at me or mocking my brothers’ favorite game doesn’t faze me. “Anyway,” I go on, “that’s not the point. The point is, I was really bad at the game because I basically just like things. I will go anywhere a movie wants to take me, even if that is watching a spy in a fitted suit balance between two speedboats while he shoots at bad guys.” Alex’s gaze flickers between the road and me a few more times. “The Linfield Cineplex?” he says, either shocked or repulsed. “Wow,” I say, “you’re really not keeping up with this story. Yes. The Linfield Cineplex.” “The one where the theaters are always, like, mysteriously flooded?” he says, aghast. “The last time I went there, I hadn’t made it halfway down the aisle before I heard splashing.” “Yes, but it’s cheap,” I said, “and I own rain boots.” “We don’t even know what that liquid is, Poppy,” he says, grimacing. “You could have contracted a disease.” I throw my arms out to my sides. “I’m alive, aren’t I?” His eyes narrow. “What else?” “What else . . .” “. . . do you like?” he clarifies. “Besides seeing any movie, alone, in the swamp theater.” “You don’t believe me?” I say. “It’s not that,” he answers. “I’m just fascinated. Scientifically curious.” “Fine. Lemme think.” I look out the window just as we’re passing an exit with a P.F. Chang’s. “Chain restaurants. Love the familiarity. Love that they’re the same everywhere, and that a lot of them have bottomless breadsticks—ooh!” I interrupt myself as it dawns on me. The thing I hate. “Running! I hate running. I got a C in gym class in high school because I ‘forgot’ my gym clothes at home so often.” The corner of Alex’s mouth curves discreetly, and my cheeks heat. “Go ahead. Mock me for getting a C in gym. I can tell you’re dying to.” “It’s not that,” he says. “Then what?” His faint smile inches higher. “It’s just funny. I love running.” “Seriously?” I cry. “You hate the very concept of cover songs yet love the feeling of your feet pounding against pavement and rattling your whole skeleton while your heart jackhammers in your chest and your lungs fight for breath?” “If it’s any consolation,” he says quietly, his smile still mostly hidden in the corner of his mouth, “I hate when people call boats ‘she.’” A laugh of surprise bursts out of me. “You know what,” I say, “I think I hate that too.” “So it’s settled,” he says. I nod. “It’s settled. The feminization of boats is hereby overturned.” “Glad we got that taken care of,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a load off. What should we eradicate next?” “I have some ideas,” he says. “But tell me some of the other things you love.” “Why, are you studying me?” I joke. His ears tinge pink. “I’m fascinated to have met someone who’d wade through sewage to see a movie they’ve never heard of, so sue me.” For the next two hours we trade our interests and disinterests like kids swapping baseball cards, all while my driving playlist cycles through on shuffle in the background. If there are any other saxophone-heavy songs, neither of us notices. I tell him that I love watching videos of mismatched animal friendships. He tells me he hates seeing both flip-flops and displays of affection in public. “Feet should be private,” he insists. “You need help,” I tell him, but I can’t stop laughing, and even as he mines his strangely specific tastes for my amusement, that shade of humor keeps hiding in the corner of his mouth. Like he knows he’s ridiculous. Like he doesn’t mind at all that I’m delighted by his strangeness. I admit that I hate both Linfield and khakis, because why not? We both already know the measure of things: we’re two people with no business spending any time together, let alone spending an extended amount of it crammed into a tiny car. We are two fundamentally incompatible people with absolutely no need to impress each other. So I have no problem saying, “Khakis just make a person look like they’re both pantsless and void of a personality.” “They’re durable, and they match everything,” Alex argues. “You know, sometimes with clothes, it’s not a matter of whether something can be worn but whether it should be worn.” Alex waves the thought away. “And as for Linfield,” he says, “what’s your problem with it? It’s a great place to grow up.” This is a more complicated question with an answer I don’t feel like sharing, even with someone who’s going to drop me off in several hours and never think of me again. “Linfield is the khakis of Midwestern cities,” I say. “Comfortable,” he says, “durable.” “Naked from the waist down.” Alex tells me he hates themed parties. Leather cuff bracelets and pointy shoes with squared-off toes. When you show up somewhere and some friend or uncle makes the joke “They’ll let anyone in here!” When servers call him bud or boss or chief. Men who walk like they just got off a horse. Vests, on anyone, in any scenario. The moment when a group of people are taking pictures and someone says, “Should we do a silly one?” “I love themed parties,” I tell him. “Of course you do,” he says. “You’re good at them.” I narrow my eyes at him, put my feet on the dashboard, then take them back down when I see the anxious creases at the corners of his mouth. “Are you stalking me, Alex?” I ask. He shoots me a horrified look. “Why would you say something like that?” His expression makes me cackle again. “Relax, I’m kidding. But how do you know I’m ‘good at’ themed parties? I’ve seen you at one party, and it was not themed.” “It’s not about that,” he says. “You’re just . . . always sort of in costume.” He hurries to add, “I don’t mean in a bad way. You’re just always dressed pretty . . .” “Amazing?” I supply. “Confidently,” he says. “What a surprisingly loaded compliment,” I say. He sighs. “Are you misunderstanding me on purpose?” “No,” I say, “I think that just comes naturally for us.” “I just mean that for you, it seems like a themed party might as well just be a Tuesday. But for me, it means I stand in front of my closet for, like, two hours trying to figure out how to look like a dead celebrity out of my ten identical shirts and five identical pants.” “You could try . . . not buying your clothes in bulk,” I suggest. “Or you can just wear your khakis and tell everyone you’re going as a flasher.” He makes a repulsed grimace but otherwise ignores my comment. “I hate the decision making of it all,” he says, waving the suggestion off. “And if I try to go buy a costume it’s even worse. I’m so overwhelmed by malls. There’s just too much. I don’t even know how to choose a store, let alone a rack. I have to buy all my clothes online, and once I find something I like, I’ll order five more of them right away.” “Well, if you ever get invited to a themed party where you’re sure there will be no flip-flops, PDA, or sax and thus you’re able to attend,” I say, “I’d be happy to take you shopping.” “Are you being serious?” His eyes flick from the road to me. It started getting dark out at some point without my noticing, and Joni Mitchell’s mournful voice is cooing out over the speakers now, her song “A Case of You.” “Of course I’m serious,” I say. We might have nothing in common, but I’m starting to enjoy myself. All year I’ve felt like I had to be on my best behavior, like I was auditioning for new friendships, new identities, a new life. But strangely, I feel none of that here. Plus . . . I love shopping. “It’d be great,” I go on. “You’d be like my living Ken doll.” I lean forward and turn the volume up a bit. “Speaking of things I love: this song.” “This is one of my karaoke songs,” Alex says. I bust into a guffaw, but from his chagrined expression, I quickly gather that he’s not joking, which makes it even better. “I’m not laughing at you,” I promise quickly. “I actually think it’s adorable.” “Adorable?” I can’t tell if he’s confused or offended. “No, I just mean . . .” I stop, roll the window down a little to let a breeze into the car. I pull my hair up off my sweaty neck and tuck it up between my head and the headrest. “You’re just . . .” I search for a way to explain it. “Not who I thought, I guess.” His brow creases. “Who did you think I was?” “I don’t know,” I say. “Some guy from Linfield.” “I am some guy from Linfield,” he says. “Some guy from Linfield who sings ‘A Case of You’ at karaoke,” I correct him, then devolve into fresh, delighted laughter at the thought. Alex smiles at the steering wheel, shaking his head. “And you’re some girl from Linfield who sings . . .” He thinks for a second. “‘Dancing Queen’ at karaoke?” “Only time will tell,” I say. “I’ve never been to karaoke.” “Seriously?” He looks over at me, broad, unfiltered surprise on his face. “Aren’t most karaoke bars twenty-one and up?” I say. “Not all bars card,” he says. “We should go. Sometime this summer.” “Okay,” I say, as surprised by the invitation as by my accepting it. “That’d be fun.” “Okay,” he says. “Cool.” So now we have two sets of plans. I guess that makes us friends. Sort of? A car flies up behind us, pressing in close. Alex, seemingly unbothered, puts on his signal to move out of his way. Every time I’ve checked the speedometer, he’s been holding steady precisely at the speed limit, and that’s not about to change for one measly tailgater. I should’ve guessed what a cautious driver he’d be. Then again, sometimes when you guess about people, you end up very wrong. As the sticky, glare-streaked remains of Chicago shrink behind us and the thirsty fields of Indiana spring up on either side of us, my shuffling driving playlist moves nonsensically between Beyoncé and Neil Young and Sheryl Crow and LCD Soundsystem. “You really do like everything,” Alex teases. “Except running, Linfield, and khakis,” I say. He keeps his window up, I keep mine down, my hair cycloning around my head as we fly over flat country roads, the wind so loud I can barely make out Alex’s pitchy rendition of Heart’s “Alone” until he gets to the soaring chorus and we belt it out together in horrendous matching falsettos, arms flying, faces contorted, and ancient station wagon speakers buzzing. In that moment, he is so dramatic, so ardent, so absurd, it’s like I’m looking at an entirely separate person from the mild-mannered boy I met beneath the globe lights during O-Week. Maybe, I think, Quiet Alex is like a coat that he puts on before he walks out the door. Maybe this is Naked Alex. Okay, I’ll think of a better name for it. The point is, I’m starting to like this one. “What about traveling?” I ask in the lull between songs. “What about it?” he says. “Love or hate?” His mouth presses into an even line as he considers. “Hard to say,” he replies. “I’ve never really been anywhere. Read about a lot of places, just haven’t seen any of them yet.” “Me neither,” I say. “Not yet.” He thinks for another moment. “Love,” he says. “I’m guessing love.” “Yeah.” I nod. “Me too.” 6 This Summer I MARCH INTO SWAPNA’S office the next morning, feeling wired despite the late night I had texting Alex. I plop her drink, an iced Americano, down on her desk and she looks up, startled, from the layout proofs she’s approving for the upcoming fall issue. “Palm Springs,” I say. For a second, her surprise stays fixed on her face, then the corners of her razor-edged lips curl into a smile. She sits back in her chair, folding her perfectly toned arms across her tailored black dress, the overhead light catching her engagement ring so that the behemoth ruby set at its center winks fantastically. “Palm Springs,” she repeats. “It’s evergreen.” She thinks for a second, then waves her hand. “I mean, it’s a desert, of course, but as far as R+R, there’s hardly any place more restful or relaxing in the continental United States.” “Exactly,” I say, as if that had been what I was thinking all along. In reality, my choice has nothing to do with what R+R might like and everything to do with David Nilsen, youngest brother of Alex and a man set to marry the love of his life this time next week. In Palm Springs, California. It was a hiccup I hadn’t expected—that Alex already had a trip scheduled next week: his brother’s destination wedding. I’d been crushed when he told me, but I said I understood, asked him to congratulate David, and set my phone down, expecting the conversation to end. But it hadn’t, and after two more hours of texting, I’d taken a deep breath and pitched the idea of him stretching his three-day trip to spend a few extra days on an R+R-funded vacation with me. He’d not only agreed but invited me to stick around for the wedding after. It was all coming together. “Palm Springs,” Swapna says again, her eyes glossing as she slips into her mind and tries the idea out. She breaks suddenly from her reverie and reaches for her keyboard. She types for a minute, then scratches her chin as she reads something on her screen. “Of course, we’d have to wait to use that for the winter issue. The summer’s low season.” “But that’s why it’s perfect,” I say, spitballing and a little panicked. “There’s all kinds of stuff going on in the Springs in the summer, and it’s less crowded and cheaper. This could be a good way to kind of get back to my roots—how to do this trip on the cheap, you know?” Swapna’s lips purse thoughtfully. “But our brand is aspirational.” “And Palm Springs is peak aspiration,” I say. “We’ll give our readers the vision—then show them how they can have it.” Swapna’s dark eyes light up as she considers this, and my stomach lifts hopefully. Then she blinks and turns back to her computer screen. “No.” “What?” I say, not even on purpose, just because my brain can’t compute that this is happening. There is no way that this, my job, is where the train goes off the rails. Swapna gives an apologetic sigh and leans over her gleaming glass desk. “Look, Poppy, I appreciate the thought that went into this, but it’s just not R+R. It will translate as brand confusion.” “Brand confusion,” I say, apparently still too stunned to come up with my own words. “I thought about it all weekend, and I’m sending you to Santorini.” She looks back to the layout proofs on her desk, her face shifting gears from Empathetic but Professional Manager Swapna to Concentrating Magazine Genius Swapna. She’s moved on, the signal so strong that I find myself standing even though, inside, my brain is still caught on a refrain of but, but, but! But this is our chance to fix things. But you can’t give up that easily. But this is what you want. Not gorgeous whitewashed Santorini and its sparkling sea. Alex in the desert, in the dead of summer. Wandering into places before checking them out on Tripadvisor, unstructured days and late, late nights and full hours of sunshine lost to the inside of a dusty bookstore he couldn’t pass by, or a vintage shop whose clutter and germs have him standing, rigid yet patient, near the door as I try on dead people’s hats. That’s what I want. I stand in the doorway of the office, heart racing, until Swapna looks up from the proofs, her eyebrow arched inquiringly, as if to say, Yes, Poppy? “Give Santorini to Garrett,” I say. Swapna blinks at me, evidently confused. “I think I need some time off,” I blurt out, then clarify. “A vacation—a real one.” Swapna’s lips press tight. She’s confused but not going to push for more information, which is good because I wouldn’t know how to explain anyway. She gives a slow nod. “Send me the dates, then.” I turn and walk back to my desk feeling calmer than I have in months. Until I sit down and reality forces its way in. I’ve got some savings, but taking a trip that’s affordable by R+R’s standards—and on their dime—is a very different thing from taking a trip that I can afford with my own money. And as a high school English teacher with a doctorate and all of its associated debt, there’s no way Alex could afford to split costs with me. I doubt he’d agree to take the trip at all if he knew I was funding it myself. But maybe this is a good thing. We always had so much fun on those trips we cobbled together on cents. Things only started going downhill once R+R got involved in our summer trips. I can do this: I can plan the perfect trip, like I used to; remind Alex how good things can be. The more I think about it, the more this makes sense. I’m actually excited by the idea of having one of our old-school, dirt-cheap trips. Things were so much simpler back then, and we always had a blast. I pull out my phone and take my time trying to craft the perfect message. Fun thought: Let’s do this trip the way we used to. Cheap as shit, no professional photographers tailing us, no five-star restaurants, just seeing Palm Springs like the impoverished academic and digital-age journalist that we are. Within a few seconds, he replies: R+R’s okay with that? No photographer? I unconsciously start waggling my head back and forth like the tiny angel and devil on my shoulder are taking turns tugging it from left to right. I don’t want to outright lie to him. But they are okay with it. I’m taking a week off, so I’m free. Yep, I say. Everything’s all set if you’re okay with it. Sure, he writes. Sounds good. It does sound good. It’ll be good. I can make it good. 7 This Summer AS SOON AS the plane touches down, the four babies that spent the full six-hour flight screaming stop at once. I slip my phone from my purse and turn off airplane mode, waiting out the flood of incoming text messages from Rachel, Garrett, Mom, David Nilsen, and—last but absolutely not least—Alex. Rachel says, in three different ways, to please let her know as soon as I land that my plane didn’t crash or get sucked into the Bermuda Triangle, and that she’s both praying for and manifesting a safe landing for me. Safe and sound and already missing you, I tell her, then I open up the message from Garrett. Thank you SO MUCH for not taking Santorini, he writes, then, in a separate message: Also . . . Pretty weird decision IMHO. I hope you’re okay . . . I’m fine, I tell him. I just had a wedding come up last minute and Santorini was your idea. Send me lots of pics so I can regret my life choices? Next, I open the message from David: SO happy you’re coming with Al! Tham’s excited to meet you, and of course you are invited to EVERYTHING. Of all of Alex’s brothers, David has always been my favorite. But it’s hard to believe he’s old enough to get married. Then again, when I said that to Alex, he texted back, Twenty-four. I can’t imagine making a decision like that at that age but all my brothers got married young, and Tham’s great. My dad’s even on board. He got a bumper sticker that says I’M A PROUD CHRIST FOLLOWER WHO LOVES MY GAY SON. I snorted laughter into my coffee as I read that one. It was so supremely Mr. Nilsen, and also perfectly played into Alex’s and my running joke about David being the family favorite. Alex hadn’t even been allowed to listen to secular music until he was in high school, and when he decided to go to a secular university, there had been weeping. In the end, though, Mr. Nilsen really did love his sons, and so he pretty much always came around on matters that concerned their happiness. If you’d gotten married at twenty-four, you’d be married to Sarah, I texted Alex. You’d be married to Guillermo, he said. I sent him back one of his own Sad Puppy selfies. Please tell me you’re not still carrying a torch for that dick, Alex said. The two of them had never gotten along. Of course not, I wrote back. But Gui and I weren’t the ones in a torturous on-and-off relationship. That was you and Sarah. Alex typed and stopped typing so many times I started to wonder if he was doing it just to annoy me. But that was the end of that conversation. When he next texted me, the following day, it was with a non sequitur, a picture of BeDazzled black robes that said SPA BITCH on the back. Summer Trip Uniform? he wrote, and we’ve dodged the topic of Sarah ever since, which makes it pretty damn clear to me that there’s something going on between them. Again. Now, sitting on the cramped and sweltering plane, taxiing toward LAX, in the post-baby-scream silence, it still makes me a little sick to think about. Sarah and I have never been each other’s biggest fans. I doubt she’d approve of Alex taking another trip with me if they were back together, and if they aren’t properly but are on their way to being, then this could very well be the last summer trip. They’d get married, start having kids, take their whole family to Disney World, and she and I would never be close enough for me to be a real part of Alex’s life anymore. I push the thought away and answer David’s text message: I’M SO EXCITED AND HONORED THAT I GET TO BE THERE! He sends back a gif of a dancing bear, and I tap open the text from my mom next. Give Alex a big hug and kiss for me:), she writes, with the smiley face typed out. She never remembers how to use emojis and becomes impatient immediately when I try to show her. “I can type them out just fine!” she insists. My parents: not the biggest fans of change. Do you want me to grab his butt while I’m at it? I write back to her. If you think that will work, she replies. I’m getting tired of waiting for grandbabies. I roll my eyes and exit out of the message. Mom has always adored Alex, at least partly because he moved back to Linfield and she’s hoping we’ll wake up one day and realize we’re in love with each other and I’ll move back too and get pregnant immediately. My father, on the other hand, is a doting but intimidating man who has always terrified Alex so much that he’s never let one ounce of personality out while in the same room as Dad. He’s brawny with a booming voice, mildly handy in the way so many men of his generation are, and he has a tendency to ask a lot of blunt, bordering-on-inappropriate questions. Not because he’s hoping for a certain response but because he’s curious and not very self-aware. He is also, like all members of the Wright family, not amazing at modulating his voice. To a stranger, my mother shouting “Have you tried these grapes that taste like cotton candy? Oh, you’ll love them! Here, let me wash some off for you! Oh, let me wash a bowl first. Oh, no, all our bowls are in the fridge with Saran Wrap covering our leftovers—here, just grab a fistful instead!” might be mildly overwhelming, but when my father’s brow crinkles and he blasts out a question like “Did you vote in the last mayoral election?” it’s easy to feel like you’ve just been shoved into an interrogation room with an enforcer the FBI pays under the table. The first time Alex picked me up at my parents’ house for a karaoke night that first summer of our friendship, I tried to shield him from my family and my house, as much for his sake as for my own. By the end of our first road trip home I knew enough about him to understand that his walking into our tiny house filled to the brim with knickknacks and dusty picture frames and dog dander would be like a vegetarian taking a tour of a slaughterhouse. I didn’t want him to be uncomfortable, sure, but just as badly, I didn’t want him to judge my family. Messy and strange and loud and blunt as they were, my parents were amazing, and I’d learned the hard way that that wasn’t what people saw when they came through our front door. So I’d told Alex I’d meet him in the driveway, but I hadn’t stressed the point, and Alex—being Alex Nilsen—had come to the door anyway, like a good 1950s quarterback, determined to introduce himself to my parents, so they “wouldn’t worry” about me riding off into the sunset with a stranger. I heard the doorbell and went running to head off the cha