“True,” I say. “She’s nothing like Sarah Torval.”
Alex rolls his eyes again then closes them entirely. “Go to sleep, weirdo.”
Through a yawn, I say, “Sleep speaks to me.”
THERE ARE PLENTY of empty chaise lounges available at the Desert Rose complex pool—everyone’s in the water—so Alex and I take our towels over to two in the corner.
He winces as he lowers himself to sitting. “The plastic’s hot.”
“Everything’s hot.” I plop down beside him and peel off my cover-up. “What percentage of that pool do you think is pee by now?” I ask, tipping my head to the gaggle of sunhat-wearing babies splashing on the steps with their parents.
Alex grimaces. “Don’t say that.”
“Because it’s so hot I’m going to get in the water anyway, and I don’t want to think about it.” He glances away as he draws his white T-shirt over his head, then folds it and twists to set it on the ground behind him, the muscles pulling taut along his chest and stomach in the process.
“How have you gotten more ripped?” I ask.
“I haven’t.” He pulls the sunblock from my beach bag and pumps some into his hand.
I look down at my own stomach, hanging over the tight highlighter orange of my bikini bottoms. In the last few years my lifestyle of airplane cocktails and late-night burritos, gyros, and noodles has started to fill me out and soften me. “Fine,” I say to Alex, “then you look exactly the same, while the rest of us are starting to droop in the eyes and the boobs and the neck, and get more and more stretch marks and pockmarks and scars.”
“Do you really want to look like your eighteen-year-old self?” he asks, and starts to smear big globs of sunblock onto his arms and chest.
“Yes.” I pick up the bottle of Banana Boat and work some of it onto my shoulders. “But I’d settle for twenty-five.”
Alex shakes his head, then bows it as he slathers more sunblock onto his neck. “You look better than you did back then, Poppy.”
“Really? Because the comments section on my Instagram would disagree,” I say.
“That’s all bullshit,” he says. “Half the people on Instagram have never lived in a world where every picture wasn’t edited. If they saw you in real life, they’d pass out. My students are all obsessed with this ‘Instagram model’ who’s completely CGI. This animated girl. Literally looks like a video game character and every time the account posts, they all freak out about how beautiful she is.”
“Oh, yeah, I know that girl,” I say. “I mean, I don’t know her. She’s not real. But I know the account. Sometimes I go down deep rabbit holes reading the comments. She has a rivalry with another CGI model—do you want me to get your back?”
“What?” He looks up, confused.
I lift the bottle of sunblock up. “Your back? It’s facing the sun right now.”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” He turns around and ducks his head, but he’s still tall enough that I have to sit up on my knees to get the spot between his shoulder blades. “Anyway.” He clears his throat. “The kids know I get seriously repulsed by the uncanny valley so they always try to trick me into looking at pictures of that fake girl, just to watch me writhe. It kind of makes me feel bad for doing that Sad Puppy Face at you all these years.”
My hands go still on his warm, sun-freckled shoulders, my stomach pinching. “I’d be sad if you stopped doing that.”
He looks over his shoulder at me, his profile cast in cool blue shadow as the sun beats down on him from the other side. For a millisecond, I feel fluttery from his closeness, from the feeling of his shoulder muscles under my hands and the way his cologne mixes with the coconut sweetness of the sunblock and the way his hazel eyes fix on me firmly.
It’s a millisecond that belongs to that other five percent—the what-if. If I leaned forward and kissed him over his shoulder, slipped his bottom lip between my teeth, twisted my hands into his hair until he turned himself around and pulled me into his chest.
But there’s no more room for that what-if, and I know that. I think he knows it too, because he clears his throat and glances away. “Want me to get your back too?”
“Mm-hm,” I manage, and we both turn again so that now he’s facing my back, and the whole time his hands are on me, I’m actively trying not to register it. Trying not to feel something hotter than the Palm Springs sun gathering behind my belly button as his palms gently scrape over me.
It doesn’t matter that there are babies squealing and people laughing and preteens cannonballing into far-too-small spaces in the pool. There’s not enough stimuli in this busy pool to distract me, so I move on to a hastily formed plan B.
“Do you ever talk to Sarah?” I blurt out, my voice a full octave higher than usual.
“Um.” Alex’s hands lift off me. “Sometimes. You’re done, by the way.”
“Cool. Thanks.” I turn around and shift back onto my chaise, putting a good foot of space between us. “Is she still teaching at East Linfield?” With how competitive teaching jobs were these days, it seemed like a dream when they both found positions at the same school and moved back to Ohio. Then they broke up.
“Yep.” He reaches into my bag and pulls out the water bottles we filled with the premade margarita slushies we got at CVS. He hands me one of them. “She’s still there.”
“So you must see each other a lot,” I say. “Is that awkward?”
“Nah, not really,” he offers.
“You don’t really see each other a lot or it’s not really awkward?”