He stares at me through the dark of the cabin for a few seconds. Then his hand relaxes into mine, his warm, rough fingers settling. It gives me a surprising thrill to hold his hand. Ninety-five percent of the time, I see Alex Nilsen in a purely platonic way, and I’d guess his number hovers a bit higher. But for that other five percent of the time, there’s this what-if.
It never lasts long or pushes too hard. It just sits there, cupped between our hands, a gentle thought without much weight behind it: What would it be like to kiss him? How would he touch me? Would he taste the way he smells? No one has better dental hygiene than Alex, which isn’t exactly a sexy thought but certainly sexier than the opposite end of the spectrum.
And that’s about as far as the thought ever goes, which is perfect, because I like Alex way too much to date him. Plus we’re entirely incompatible.
The plane judders through another quick stretch of turbulence, and Alex’s grip tightens.
“Time to panic?” he asks.
“Not yet,” I say. “Try to sleep.”
“Because I need to be well rested when I meet Death.”
“Because you need to be well rested when I get tired in Butchart Gardens and make you carry me the rest of the way.”
“I knew there was a reason you brought me with you.”
“I didn’t bring you with me to be my mule,” I argue. “I brought you with me to be my patsy. You’re gonna cause a diversion as I run through the dining room of the Empress Hotel during high tea, stealing tiny sandwiches and priceless bracelets off unsuspecting guests.”
He squeezes my hand. “I guess I’d better sleep, then.”
I squeeze back. “Guess so.”
“Wake me up when it’s time to panic.”
He rests his head on my shoulder and pretends to sleep.
When we land, he will have a horrible kink in his neck and my shoulder will ache from sitting in this position for so long, but right now I don’t mind. I have five glorious days of travel with my best friend ahead of me, and deep down, I know: nothing can go wrong, not really.
It’s not time to panic.
DO WE HAVE a rental car?” Alex asks as we head out of the airport into the windy heat.
“Sort of.” I chew on my lip as I fish my phone out to call a cab. “I sourced a ride from a Facebook group.”
Alex’s eyes narrow, the jet-induced gusts rolling through the arrivals area making his hair flap against his forehead. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“Remember?” I say. “It’s what we did on our first trip. To Vancouver? When we were too young to legally rent a car?”
He stares at me.
“You know,” I say, “that women’s online travel group I’ve been in for, like, fifteen years? Where people post their apartments for sublet and list their cars for rent? Remember? We had to take a bus to pick up the car outside the city and walk, like, five miles with our luggage?”
“I remember,” he says. “I’ve just never stopped to wonder why anyone would rent their car to a stranger before this moment.”
“Because a lot of people in New York like to leave for the winter and a lot of people in Los Angeles like to go somewhere else for the summer.” I shrug. “This girl’s car would’ve been sitting unused for, like, a month, so I got it for the week for seventy bucks. We just have to take a cab to pick it up.”
“Cool,” Alex says.
And here is the first awkward silence of the trip. It doesn’t matter that we’ve been texting nonstop for the past week—or maybe that’s made it worse. My mind is unforgivingly blank. All I can do is stare at the app on my phone, watching the car icon creep closer.
“This is us.” I tip my chin toward the approaching minivan.
“Cool,” Alex says again.
Our driver takes our bags and we pile in with the two other people we’re ridesharing with, a middle-aged couple in matching BeDazzled visors. WIFEY, says the hot-pink one. HUBBY, says the lime-green one. Both of them are wearing flamingo-print shirts, and they’re so tanned already they look something like Alex’s shoes. Hubby’s head is shaved, and Wifey’s is dyed a bright bottle-red.
“Hey, y’all!” Wifey drawls as Alex and I settle into the middle seats.
“Hi.” Alex twists in his seat and offers a smile that’s almost convincing.
“Honeymoon,” Wifey says, waving between her and Hubby. “What about you two?”
“Oh,” Alex says. “Um.”
“Same!” I loop my hand through his, turning to flash them a smile.
“Ooh!” Wifey squeals. “How do you like that, Bob? A car full of lovebirds!”
Hubby Bob nods. “Congrats, kids.”
“How’d you meet?” Wifey wants to know.
I glance at Alex. The two expressions his face is making right now are (1) terrified and (2) exhilarated. This is a familiar game for us, and even if it’s more awkward than usual to have my hand tangled in and dwarfed by his, there’s also something comforting about slipping out of ourselves in this way, playing together like we always have.
“Disneyland,” Alex says, and turns to the couple in the back seat.
Wifey’s eyes widen. “How magical!”
“It really was, you know?” I shoot Alex hearty eyes and poke his nose with my free hand. “He was working as a VS—that’s what we call vomit scoopers. Their job is just to sort of linger outside all those new 3D rides and clean up after seasick grandparents.”