By the time summer ended, we’d signed up for two core requirement classes together, a math and a science, and most nights, Alex came to my dorm or I went to his to struggle through the homework. My old roommate, Bonnie, had officially moved in with her sister, and I was rooming with Isabel, a premed student who’d sometimes look over Alex’s and my shoulders and correct our work while crunching on celery, her alleged favorite food.
Alex hated math as much as I did, but he loved his English classes and devoted hours each night to their assigned reading while I aimlessly perused travel blogs and celebrity gossip rags on the floor beside him. My courses were uniformly boring, but on nights when Alex and I walked the campus after dinner with cups of hot chocolate, or weekends when we wandered the city on a quest for the best hot dog stand or cup of coffee or falafel, I felt happier than I ever remembered. I loved being in the city, surrounded by art and food and noise and new people, enough that the school part of it was bearable.
Late one night, when snow was piling up in my windowsill and Alex and I were stretched out on my rug studying for an exam, we started listing places we wished we were instead.
“Paris,” I said.
“Working on my American Lit final,” Alex said.
“Seoul,” I said.
“Working on my Intro to Nonfiction final,” Alex said.
“Sofia, Bulgaria,” I said.
“Canada,” Alex said.
I looked at him and erupted into slaphappy exhaustion-laughter, which triggered his trademark chagrin. “Your top three vacation destinations,” I said, lying back on the rug, “are two separate essays and the country nearest to us.”
“It’s more affordable than Paris,” he said seriously.
“Which is what really matters when you’re daydreaming.”
He sighed. “Well, what about that hot spring you read about? The one in a rain forest? That’s in Canada.”
“Vancouver Island,” I supplied, nodding. Or a smaller island near it, actually.
“That’s where I’d go,” he said, “if my travel companion weren’t so disagreeable.”
“Alex,” I said, “I will happily go to Vancouver Island with you. Especially if the other options are just watching you do more homework. We’ll go next summer.”
Alex lay back beside me. “What about Paris?”
“Paris can wait,” I said. “Also we can’t afford Paris.”
He smiled faintly. “Poppy,” he said, “we can barely afford our weekly hot dogs.”
But now, months later, after a semester of picking up every possible shift at our campus jobs—Alex at the library, me in the mailroom—we’ve saved enough for this very cheap red-eye (complete with two layovers), and I’m buzzing with excitement as we finally board.
As soon as we lift off and the cabin lights dim, though, the exhaustion kicks in and I find myself being lulled to sleep, head resting on Alex’s shoulder, a small pool of drool accumulating on his shirt, only to jolt awake when the plane hits a pocket of air that makes it dip and Alex accidentally elbows me in the face in response.
“Shit!” he gasps as I sit bolt upright, clutching my cheek. “Shit!” His white knuckles are clamped around the armrests, the rise and fall of his chest shallow.
“Are you afraid of flying?” I ask.
“No!” he whispers, considerate of the other sleeping passengers even in his panic. “I’m afraid of dying.”
“You’re not going to die,” I promise. The jet settles into a rhythm, but the seat belt light comes on and Alex keeps gripping the armrests like someone’s flipped the plane upside down and started trying to shake us out.
“That doesn’t seem good,” he says. “It sounded like something broke off the plane.”
“That was the sound of your elbow smashing into my face.”
“What?” He looks over. The two simultaneous expressions on his face are surprise and confusion.
“You hit me in the face!” I tell him.
“Oh, shit,” he says. “Sorry. Can I see?”
I pull my hand away from my throbbing cheekbone, and Alex leans in close, his fingers hovering over my skin. His hand falls away without ever landing. “It looks okay. Maybe we should see if a flight attendant can bring some ice.”
“Good idea,” I say. “We can call her over and tell her you hit me in the face, but I’m sure it was an accident and also it’s not your fault—you were surprised and—”
“God, Poppy,” he says. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt that bad.” I nudge his elbow with mine. “Why didn’t you tell me you were afraid of flying?”
“I didn’t know I was.”
He tips his head back against the headrest. “I hadn’t flown before tonight.”
“Oh.” My stomach clenches guiltily. “I wish you’d told me.”
“I didn’t want to make it a thing.”
“I wouldn’t have made it a thing.”
He looks over at me skeptically. “And what do you call this?”
“Okay, fine, yes, I made it a thing. But look.” I slide my hand under his and tentatively fold my fingers into his. “I’m here with you, and if you want to sleep for a little, I’ll stay awake to make sure the plane doesn’t crash. Which it won’t. Because this is safer than driving.”
“I hate driving too,” he says.
“I know you do. But my point is, this is better than that. Like, way better. And I’m here with you, and I’ve flown before, so if there’s a reason to panic, I’ll know. And I promise you, in that situation, I will panic and you’ll know something’s wrong. Until then, you can relax.”