“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.”