People We Meet on Vacation

Page 18

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 chaos, but in my vintage pink-feathered house shoes, I wasn’t fast enough. By the time I got downstairs, Alex was standing in the front hall between two towers of stacked storage containers, getting batted back and forth by our two very old and badly behaved husky mixes, as a slew of unseemly family photos stared down at him from every side.

At the moment I came skittering around the corner from the stairs, Dad was booming out, “Why would we worry about her going out with you?” and then, “And when you say ‘going out,’ do you mean that you two are—”

“Nope!” I interrupted, dragging the hornier of our dogs, Rupert, back by the collar before he could mount Alex’s leg. “We are not going out. Not like that. And you definitely don’t need to worry. Alex is a really slow driver.”

“That’s what I was trying to say,” he stammered. “I mean, not the driving speed. I drive . . . the speed limit. I just meant, you don’t need to worry.”

Dad’s brow furrowed. Alex’s face drained of blood, and I wasn’t sure whether he was more unnerved by my father or by the layer of dust visible along the baseboards in the hallway, which, frankly, I’d never noticed until that moment.

“Did you see Alex’s car, Dad?” I said quickly, a diversion. “It’s very old. His phone too. Alex hasn’t gotten a new phone in, like, seven years.”

Alex’s face went red even as my father’s relaxed into interest and approval. “Is that so?”

Still, all these years later, I can remember with vivid clarity the way Alex’s gaze flickered to mine, searching my face for the correct answer. I gave him a little nod.

“Yes?” he answered, and Dad clapped a hand on his shoulder so hard Alex flinched.

Dad gave a big, no-holds-barred grin. “It’s always better to repair than to replace!”

“Replace what?” Mom shouted from the kitchen. “Did something break? Who are you talking to? Poppy? Does anyone want some chocolate-dipped pretzels? Shoot, let me just find a clean plate . . .”

When we finally finished the twenty-minute goodbye required to leave my house and made it back to Alex’s car, he said only of the whole affair, “Your parents seem nice.”

I responded, with accidental aggression, “They are,” like I was daring him to bring up the dust or the humping husky or the two billion childhood drawings still magnetized to our fridge or anything else, but of course he didn’t. He was Alex, even if I didn’t understand everything that meant back then.

In all the years I’ve known him since, he’s still never said an unkind word about any of it. He even sent flowers to my dorm when Rupert, the husky, died. I always felt we had a special connection after that night we shared, he joked in the card. He will be missed. If you need anything at all, P, I’m here. Always.

Not that I have the note memorized or anything.

Not that, in the lone shoebox’s worth of saved cards and letters and scraps of paper I allow myself to keep in my apartment, this one made the cut.

Not that there were full days during our friendship’s hiatus when I tortured myself with the thought that maybe I should throw that card away since, as it turned out, always had ended.

Toward the back of the plane, one of the babies starts screaming again, but we’re pulling up to the gate now. I’ll be off in no time.

And then I’ll see Alex.

A thrill zings up my spine, and a nervous flutter works back down into my stomach.

I open the last unread message in my inbox, the one from him: Just landed.

Same, I type back.

After that, I don’t know what to say. We’ve been texting for over a week, never broaching the topic of the ill-fated Croatia trip, and everything’s felt so normal until right now. Then I remember: I haven’t seen Alex in real life in over two years.

I haven’t touched him, haven’t even heard his voice. There are so many ways this could be awkward. Almost certainly we’ll experience some of them.

I’m excited to see him, of course, but more than that, I realize I’m terrified.

We need to pick a meeting point. Someone has to suggest it. I summon the layout of LAX to mind from the soup of hazy memories of every dully carpeted gate and electric walkway I’ve seen in the last four and a half years of working at R+R.

If I ask to meet at baggage claim, will that mean a long stretch of walking toward each other silently until we’re close enough to actually talk? Am I supposed to hug him?

The Nilsens aren’t a huggy bunch, as opposed to the Wrights, who are known to grab, elbow, slap, rustle, squeeze, and nudge for emphasis during any conversation, no matter how mundane. Touching is such second nature to me that once I accidentally hugged my dishwasher repairman when I let him out of the apartment, at which point he graciously told me he was married, and I congratulated him.

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