It was so late it was almost morning, those slippery hours when it feels safest to let your secrets out. So I told him all of it, starting with seventh grade.
The unfortunate braces, the gum Kim Leedles put in my hair, and the resulting bowl cut. The insult added to injury when Kim told my whole class that anyone who talked to me wouldn’t be invited to her birthday party. Which was still a solid five months off, though it promised to be worth the wait, thanks to her pool’s waterslide and the movie theater in her basement.
Then, in ninth grade, once the stigma had finally worn off and my boobs had arrived practically overnight, there was the three-month stretch during which I was a Hot Commodity. Until Jason Stanley kissed me unexpectedly and responded to my disinterest by telling everyone I gave him an unprompted blow job in the janitor’s closet.
The entire soccer team called me Porny Poppy for, like, a year after that. No one wanted to be my friend. Then there was tenth grade, the worst of all.
It started off better because the younger of my two brothers was a senior and willing to share his Theater Kid friend-group with me. But that only lasted until I had a sleepover for my birthday, at which point I found out how embarrassing everyone thought my parents were. I quickly realized I didn’t like my friends as much as I’d thought.
I’d told Alex too about how much I loved my family, how protective I felt of them, but how even with them, I was sometimes a little lonely. Everyone else was someone else’s top person. Mom and Dad. Parker and Prince. Even the huskies were paired up, while our terrier mix and the cat spent most days curled together in a sun patch. Before Alex, my family was the only place I belonged, but even with them, I was something of a loose part, that baffling extra bolt IKEA packs with your bookcase, just to make you sweat. Everything I’d done since high school had been to escape that feeling, that person.
And I told him all of that, minus the part about feeling like I belonged with him, because even after two years of friendship, that seemed like a bit much. When I finished, I thought he’d finally fallen asleep. But after a few seconds, he shifted onto his side to gaze at me through the dark and said quietly, “I bet you were adorable with a bowl cut.”
I really, really wasn’t, but somehow, that was enough to cool the harsh sting of all those memories. He saw me, and he loved me.
“Poppy?” Alex says, bringing me back to the hot, stinky car and the desert. “Where are you right now?”
I stick my hand out the window, grasping at the wind. “Wandering the halls of East Linfield High to a chant of Porny Poppy! Porny Poppy!”
“Fine,” Alex says gently. “I won’t make you visit my classroom to teach Billy Joel Radio History. But just so you know . . .” He looks at me, face serious, voice deadpan. “If any of my juniors called you Porny Poppy, I’d fucking waste them.”
“That has to be,” I say, “the hottest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
He laughs but looks away. “I’m serious. Bullying’s the one thing I don’t let them get away with.” He tips his head in thought. “Except me. They bully me constantly.”
I laugh even though I don’t believe him. Alex teaches the AP and Honors kids, and he’s young, handsome, quietly hilarious, and freakishly smart. There’s no way they don’t adore him.
“But do they call you Porny Alex?” I ask.
He grimaces. “God, I hope not.”
“Sorry,” I say, “Mr. Porny.”
“Please. Mr. Porny is my father.”
“I bet so many students have crushes on you.”
“One girl told me I look like Ryan Gosling . . .”
“Oh my god.”
“. . . if he got stung by a bee.”
“Ouch,” I say.
“I know,” Alex agrees. “Tough but fair.”
“Maybe Ryan Gosling looks like you if he was left outside to dehydrate, did you ever think of that?”
“Yeah. Take that, Jessica McIntosh,” he says.
“You bitch,” I say, then immediately shake my head. “Nope. Did not feel good to call a child a bitch. Bad joke.”
Alex grimaces again. “If it makes you feel any better, Jessica is . . . not my favorite. But she’ll grow out of a lot of it, I think.”
“Yeah, I mean, for all you know she might be working against a lifetime of postgum bowl cuts. It’s nice of you to give her a chance.”
“You were never a Jessica,” he says confidently.
I arch an eyebrow. “How do you know?”
“Because.” His eyes hold fast to the sun-bleached road. “You’ve always been Poppy.”
* * *
• • •
THE DESERT ROSE apartment complex is a stucco building painted bubblegum pink, its name embossed in curling midcentury letters. A garden full of scrubby cacti and massive succulents winds around it, and through a white picket fence, we spot a sparkling teal pool, dotted with sun-browned bodies and ringed in palm trees and chaise lounges.
Alex turns the car off. “Looks nice,” he says, sounding relieved.
I step out of the car, and the asphalt’s hot even through my sandals.
I thought from summers in New York, trapped between skyscrapers with the sun pinballing back and forth ad infinitum—and all those earlier ones in the Ohio River Valley’s natural humidity trap—that I knew what hot was.
I did not.
My skin tingles under the merciless desert sun, my feet burning just from standing still.
“Shit,” Alex pants, sweeping his hair off his forehead.
“I guess this is why it’s the off-season.”
“How do David and Tham live here?” he says, sounding disgusted.