Back when Alex and I were close, we hugged all the time; but that was then, when I knew him. When he was comfortable with me.
I fight my roller bag free from the overhead bin and push it along ahead of me, sweat gathering in my armpits beneath my light sweater and under the blunt little approximation of a ponytail swept off my neck.
The flight took forever; every time I checked the clock, it seemed like full hours had been condensed into a minute or two. I was bouncing-up-and-down-in-my-very-small-seat eager to get here, but now it’s like time is making up for the ballooning it did during the flight, shrinking so that I travel the whole length of the jet bridge in an instant.
My throat feels tight. My brain feels like it’s sloshing around in my skull. I step out into the gate, move sideways out of the path of everyone coming off the jet bridge behind me, and slip my phone out of my pocket. My hands are sweaty as I start to type: Meet at bag—
I spin toward the voice just as the owner of it sidesteps the stroller parked between us.
Smiling. Alex is smiling, his eyes puffy in that sleepy way, his laptop bag slung over one shoulder and earbuds hanging around his neck, his hair an utter mess compared to his dark gray trousers and button-up and his scuffless leather boots. As he closes the gap between us, he drops his carry-on bag behind him and pulls me into a hug.
And it’s normal, so natural to push up on my tiptoes and wrap my arms around his waist, burrow my face into his chest, and breathe him in. Cedar, musk, lime. There is no greater creature of habit than Alex Nilsen.
Same inscrutable haircut, same cleanly warm scent, same basic wardrobe (though enhanced a little over time with better tailoring and shoes), same way of squeezing me around the upper back and drawing me in and up against him when we hug, almost pulling me off the ground but never tightening so much that the embrace could be considered bone-crunching.
It’s more like sculpting. Gentle pressure on all sides that briefly compresses us into one living, breathing thing with twice as many hearts as we should have.
“Hi,” I say, beaming into his chest, and his arms slide down to my midback, tightening.
“Hi,” he says, and I hope he heard the smile in my voice the way I hear it in his. Despite his general aversion to any form of public affection, neither of us lets go right away, and I have the sense that we’re thinking the same thing: it’s okay to hold on for an inappropriately long time when it’s been two years since you’ve hugged.
I shut my eyes tight against rising emotion, pressing my forehead into his chest. His arms fall down to my waist and lock there for a few seconds. “How was your flight?” he asks.
I draw back enough to look up into his face. “I think we had some future world-class opera singers on board. Yours?”
His control over his small smile wavers, and his grin fans wide. “I almost gave the woman next to me a heart attack during some turbulence,” he says. “I grabbed her hand by accident.”
A high-pitched laugh shivers through me, and his smile goes wider, his arms tighter.
Naked Alex, I think, then push the thought away. I really should’ve come up with a better way of describing this version of him a long time ago.
As if he’s reading my thoughts and fittingly mortified, he tamps his smile back down and releases his hold on me, stepping back for good measure. “You need to get anything from baggage claim?” he asks, grabbing the handle of my bag along with his.
“I can get that,” I offer.
“I don’t mind,” he says.
As I follow him away from the crowded gate, I can’t stop staring at him. In awe that he’s here. In awe that he looks the same. Awed that this is real.
He glances down at me as we walk, his mouth twisting. One of my favorite things about Alex’s face has always been the way that it allows two disparate emotions to exist on it at the same time, and how legible those emotions have become to me.
Right now, that twist of his mouth is saying both amused and vaguely wary.
“What?” he says, in a voice that rides that same line.
“You’re just . . . tall,” I say.
He’s cut too, but commenting on that usually leads to embarrassment on his part, like having a gym body is somehow a personality flaw. Maybe to him it is. Vanity is something he was raised to avoid. Whereas my mom used to write little notes on my bathroom mirror in dry-erase marker: Good morning to that beautiful smile. Hello, strong arms and legs. Have a great day, lovely belly that feeds my darling daughter. Sometimes I still hear those words when I get out of the shower and stand in front of the mirror, combing my hair: Good morning, beautiful smile. Hello, strong arms and legs. Have a great day, lovely belly that feeds me.
“You’re staring at me because I’m tall?” Alex says.
“Very tall,” I say, as if this clears things up.
It’s easier than saying, I have missed you, beautiful smile. It’s so good to see you, strong arms and legs. Thank you, freakishly taut belly, for feeding this person I love so much.
Alex’s grin ripens to the point of splitting open as he holds my gaze. “It’s good to see you too, Poppy.”
Ten Summers Ago
A YEAR AGO, WHEN I met Alex Nilsen outside my dormitory with a half dozen bags of dirty laundry, I wouldn’t have believed we’d be taking a vacation together.
It started with the occasional text after our road trip home—blurry pictures of the Linfield movie theater as he drove past, with the caption don’t forget to get vaccinated, or a shot of a ten-pack of shirts I’d found at the supermarket, birthday present typed beneath it—but after three weeks, we’d graduated to phone calls and hangouts. I even convinced him to see a movie at the Cineplex, though he spent the whole time hovering over the seat, trying not to touch anything.