I arch an eyebrow and cross my arms. “Have you?”
* * *
• • •
“IT ASPIRES TO have working air-conditioning,” Alex says.
“It aspires to not smell like a butthole that’s smoking a blunt,” I say.
We’ve been playing this game since we got on the highway heading into the desert. Sasha the Ceramicist had mentioned in her post about the car that its air-conditioning came and went at random, but she’d left out the fact that she’d evidently been using it to hotbox for five years straight.
“It aspires to live long enough to see the end of all human suffering,” I add.
“This car,” Alex says, “isn’t going to live long enough to see the end of the Star Wars franchise.”
“But who among us will?” I say.
Alex wound up driving by virtue of the fact that my driving makes him carsick. And terrified. Truthfully, I don’t like driving anyway, so I usually defer the position to him.
Los Angeles traffic proved challenging for someone as cautious as him: we sat at a stop sign waiting to turn right onto a busy road for, like, ten minutes, until three cars behind us were holding down their horns.
Now that we’re out of the city, though, he’s doing great. Not even the lack of AC seems like a big deal with the windows down and sweetly flowery wind rushing over us. The bigger issue is the lack of an aux input, which has us relying on the radio.
“Has there always been this much Billy Joel traveling over the airwaves?” Alex asks the third time we switch channels midcommercial only to plunge back into the middle of “Piano Man.”
“Since the dawn of time, I think. When the cavemen built the first radio, this was already playing.”
“I didn’t know you were a historian,” he deadpans. “You should come talk to my class.”
I snort. “You could not drag me into the halls of East Linfield High with the combined force of every tractor in a five-mile radius of that building, Alex.”
“You know,” he says, “your bullies have likely graduated by now.”
“We really can’t be sure,” I say.
He looks over, face sober, mouth pressed small. “Do you want me to kick their asses?”
I sigh. “No, it’s too late. Like, all of them have kids now with those cute oversized baby glasses and most have found the Lord or started one of those weird pyramid-scheme businesses selling lip gloss.”
He looks at me, his face pink from the sun. “If you change your mind, just say the word.”
Alex knows about my rocky years in Linfield, of course, but for the most part, I try not to revisit them. I’ve always preferred the version of me that Alex brings out to the one I was back in our hometown. This Poppy feels safe in the world, because he’s in it too, and he, deep down where it matters, is like me.
Still, he had an exceptionally different experience at West Linfield High than I had at its sister school. I’m sure it helped that he played sports—basketball, both for the school and in the intramural league at his family’s church—and was handsome, but he’s always insisted the clincher was that he was quiet enough to pass for mysterious rather than weird.
Maybe if my parents hadn’t been so completely encouraging of every facet of my brothers’ and my individualism, I would’ve had better luck. There were kids who dealt with disapproval by adapting, making themselves more palatable, like Prince and Parker had in school, finding the overlap between their personalities and everyone else’s.
And then there were people like me, who labored under the misconception that eventually, My Fellow Children would not only tolerate but ultimately respect me for being myself.
There’s nothing so off-putting to some people as someone who seems not to care whether anyone else approves of them. Maybe it’s resentment: I have bent for the greater good, to follow the rules, so why haven’t you? You should care.
Of course, secretly, I did care. A lot. Probably it would’ve been better if I’d just openly cried at school instead of shrugging off insults and weeping under my pillow later. It would’ve been better if, after the first time I was mocked for the flared overalls my mom had sewn embroidered patches onto, I hadn’t kept wearing them with my chin held high, like I was some kind of eleven-year-old Joan of Arc, willing to die for my denim.
The point was, Alex had known how to play the game, whereas I’d often felt like I’d read the pages of the guidebook backward, while the whole thing was on fire.
When we were together, though, the game didn’t even exist. The rest of the world dissolved until I believed this was how things truly were. Like I’d never been that girl who’d felt entirely alone, misunderstood, and I’d always been this one: known, loved, wholly accepted by Alex Nilsen.
When we met, I hadn’t wanted him to see me as Linfield Poppy—I wasn’t sure how it would change the dynamic of our world for two once we let certain outside elements wriggle their way in. I still remember the night I finally told him about it. The last night of class our junior year, we’d stumbled back to his dorm from a party to find his roommate already gone for the summer. So I borrowed a T-shirt and some blankets from Alex and slept on the spare twin bed in his room.
I hadn’t had a sleepover like that since I was probably eight: the sort where you keep talking, eyes long since shut, until you both drift off midsentence.
We told each other everything, the things we’d never touched. Alex told me about his mom passing away, the months his dad barely changed out of pajamas, the peanut butter sandwiches Alex made for his brothers, and the baby formula he learned to mix.
For two years, he and I’d had so much fun together, but that night it felt like a whole new compartment in my heart opened where before there had been none.
And then he asked me what happened in Linfield, why I was dreading going back for summer, and it should’ve felt embarrassing to air my small grievances after everything he’d just told me, except Alex had a way of never making me feel small or petty.