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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”