“And Poppy was playing Mike Wazowski,” Alex adds dryly, upping the ante.
“Mike Wazowski?” Hubby Bob says.
“From Monsters, Inc., hon,” Wifey explains. “He’s one of the main monsters!”
“Which one?” Hubby says.
“The short one,” Alex says, then turns back to me, affecting the dopiest, most over-the-top look of adulation I’ve ever seen. “It was love at first sight.”
“Aww!” Wifey says, clutching her heart.
Hubby’s brow wrinkles. “When she was in the costume?”
Alex’s face tints pink under Hubby’s appraisal, and I cut in: “I have really great legs.”
Our driver drops us on a street of stucco houses surrounded by jasmine in Highland Park, and as we climb out onto the hot asphalt, Wifey and Hubby wave us a fond farewell. The instant the cab’s out of view, Alex releases his hold on my hand, and I scan the house numbers, nodding toward a reddish-stained privacy fence. “It’s this one.”
Alex opens the gate, and we step into the yard to find a boxy white hatchback waiting in the driveway, its every edge rusted and chipping.
“So,” Alex says, staring at it. “Seventy bucks.”
“I might’ve overpaid.” I duck around the front driver’s-side wheel, feeling for the magnetic box where the owner, a ceramicist named Sasha, said the key would be. “This is the first place I’d check for a spare if I were stealing a car.”
“I think bending that low might be too much work to steal this car,” Alex says as I pull the key out and straighten up. He walks around the back of the car and reads the tailgate: “Ford Aspire.”
I laugh and unlock the doors. “I mean, ‘aspirational’ is the R+R brand.”
“Here.” Alex takes out his phone and steps back. “Let me get a picture of you with it.”
I pop the door open and prop my foot up, striking a pose. Immediately, Alex starts to crouch. “Alex, no! Not from below.”
“Sorry,” he says. “I forgot how weird you are about that.”
“I’m weird?” I say. “You take pictures like a dad with an iPad. If you had glasses on the end of your nose and a UC Bearcats T-shirt on, you’d be indistinguishable.”
He makes a big show of holding the phone up as high as possible.
“What, and now we’re going for that early-2000s emo angle?” I say. “Find a happy medium.”
Alex rolls his eyes and shakes his head, but snaps a few pictures at a seminormal height, then comes to show them to me. I legitimately gasp when I see the last shot and grab for his arm the same way he must’ve latched on to the octogenarian he rode next to on the flight.
“What?” he says.
“You have portrait mode.”
“I do,” he agrees.
“And you used it,” I point out.
“You know how to use portrait mode,” I say, still aghast.
“How do you know how to use portrait mode? Did your grandson teach you that when he was home for Thanksgiving?”
“Wow,” he deadpans. “I’ve missed this so much.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m impressed. You’ve changed.” I hurry to add, “Not in a bad way! I just mean, you are not a person who relishes change.”
“Maybe I am now,” he says.
I cross my arms. “Do you still get up at five thirty to exercise every day?”
He shrugs. “That’s discipline, not fear of change.”
“At the same gym?” I ask.
“The one that raises its prices every six months? And plays the same New Age meditation CD on repeat at all times? The gym you were already complaining about two years ago?”
“I wasn’t complaining,” he says. “I just don’t understand how that’s supposed to motivate you on a treadmill. I was pondering. Contemplating.”
“You take your own playlist with you—what does it matter what they play over the speakers?”
He shrugs and takes the car keys from my hands, rounding the Aspire to open its rear door. “It’s a matter of principle.” He tosses our bags into the back and slams it shut.
I thought we were joking, but now I’m not so sure.
“Hey.” I reach for his elbow as he’s walking past. He stills, eyebrows lifting. There’s a knot of pride caught in my throat, stopping up the words that want to come out. But it was pride that tore our friendship up the first time, and I’m not going to make that mistake again. I’m not going to not say things that need to be said, just because I want him to say them first.
“What?” Alex says.
I swallow the knot down. “I’m glad you didn’t change too much.”
He stares at me for a beat and then—is it my imagination, or does he swallow too? “You too,” he says, and touches the end of a wave that’s come loose from my ponytail to fall along my cheek, touches it so lightly I can barely feel it at the scalp and the delicate motion sends a tingle down my neck. “And I like the haircut.”
My cheeks warm. My belly too. Even my legs seem to heat a couple degrees.
“You learned how to use a new feature on your phone, and I got a haircut,” I say. “Watch out for us now, world.”
“Radical transformation,” Alex agrees.
“A true glow-up.”
“The question is, have you gotten any better at driving?”