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.
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.”