“Short,” he says, still reading. “Loud. Never shuts up. Spills on every single article of clothing either of us wears, has horrible romantic taste, sobs through those commercials for community college—the ones where the single mom is staying up late at her computer and then, when she falls asleep, her kid drapes a blanket over her shoulders and smiles because he’s so proud of her? What else? Oh, she’s obsessed with shitty dive bars that smell like salmonella. I’m afraid to even drink the bottled beer here—have you seen the Yelp reviews for this place?”
“Are you kidding right now?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Well,” he says, “salmonella doesn’t have a smell, but yes, Poppy, you are short.”
“Alex!” I swat his bicep, breaking character. “I’m trying to help you!”
He rubs his arm. “Help me how?”
“I know Sarah broke your heart, but you need to get back out there. And when a hot babe approaches you at a bar, the number one thing you should not bring up is your codependent relationship with your asshole cat.”
“First of all, Flannery O’Connor is not an asshole,” he says. “She’s shy.”
“She just doesn’t like you,” he insists. “You have strong dog energy.”
“All I’ve ever done is try to pet her,” I say. “Why have a pet who doesn’t want to be petted?”
“She wants to be petted,” Alex says. “You just always approach her with this, like, wolfish gleam in your eye.”
“I do not.”
“Poppy,” he says. “You approach everything with a wolfish gleam in your eye.”
Just then the bartender approaches with the drink I ordered before I ducked into the bathroom. “Miss?” she says. “Your margarita.” She spins the frosted glass down the bar toward me, and a ping of excited thirst hits the back of my throat as I catch it. I swipe it up so quickly that a fair amount of tequila sloshes over the lip, and with a preternatural and highly practiced speed, Alex jerks my other arm off the bar before it can get liquor splattered on it.
“See? Wolfish gleam,” Alex says quietly, seriously, the way he delivers pretty much every word he ever says to me except on those rare and sacred nights when Weirdo Alex comes out and I get to watch him, like, lie on the floor fake-sobbing into a microphone at karaoke, his sandy hair sticking up in every direction and wrinkly dress shirt coming untucked. Just one hypothetical example. Of something that has exactly happened before.
Alex Nilsen is a study in control. In that tall, broad, permanently slouched and/or pretzel-folded body of his, there’s a surplus of stoicism (the result of being the oldest child of a widower with the most vocal anxiety of anyone I’ve ever met) and a stockpile of repression (the result of a strict religious upbringing in direct opposition to most of his passions; namely, academia), alongside the most truly strange, secretly silly, and intensely softhearted goofball I’ve had the pleasure to know.
I take a sip of the margarita, and a hum of pleasure works its way out of me.
“Dog in a human’s body,” Alex says to himself, then goes back to scrolling on his phone.
I snort my disapproval of his comment and take another sip. “By the way, this margarita is, like, ninety percent tequila. I hope you’re telling those unappeasable Yelp reviewers to shove it. And that this place smells nothing like salmonella.” I chug a little more of my drink as I slide up onto the stool beside him, turning so our knees touch. I like how he always sits like this when we’re out together: his upper body facing the bar, his long legs facing me, like he’s keeping some secret door to himself open just for me. And not a door only to the reserved, never-quite-fully-smiling Alex Nilsen that the rest of the world gets, but a path straight to the weirdo. The Alex who takes these trips with me, year after year, even though he despises flying and change and using any pillow other than the one he sleeps with at home.
I like how, when we go out, he always beelines toward the bar, because he knows I like to sit there, even though he once admitted that every time we do, he stresses out over whether he’s making too much or not enough eye contact with the bartenders.
Truthfully, I like and/or love nearly everything about my best friend, Alex Nilsen, and I want him to be happy, so even if I’ve never particularly liked any of his past love interests—and especially didn’t care for his ex, Sarah—I know it’s up to me to make sure he doesn’t let this most recent heartbreak force him into full hermit status. He’d do—and has done—the same for me, after all.
“So,” I say. “Should we take it from the top again? I’ll be the sexy stranger at the bar and you be your charming self, minus the cat stuff. We’ll get you back in the dating pool in no time.”
He looks up from his phone, nearly smirking. I’ll just call it smirking, because for Alex, this is as close as it gets. “You mean the stranger who kicks things off with a well-timed ‘Hey, tiger’? I think we might have different ideas of what ‘sexy’ is.”
I spin on my stool, our knees bump-bumping as I turn away from him and then back, resetting my face into a flirtatious smile. “Did it hurt . . .” I say, “. . . when you fell from heaven?”
He shakes his head. “Poppy, it’s important to me that you know,” he says slowly, “that if I ever do manage to go on another date, it will have absolutely nothing to do with your so-called help.”
I stand, throw back the rest of my drink dramatically, and slap the glass onto the bar. “So what do you say we get out of here?”
“How are you more successful at dating than me,” he says, awed by the mystery of it all.
“Easy,” I say. “I have lower standards. And no Flannery O’Connor to get in the way. And when I go out to bars, I don’t spend the whole time scowling at Yelp reviews and forcefully projecting DON’T TALK TO ME. Also, I am, arguably, gorgeous from certain angles.”