She hurries from the room, and I finish packing, then drag my bag downstairs. Mom’s at the island, chopping browned bananas for banana bread while the cookies cool, and Alex is sitting in that very rigid way beside my father. “Ready?” I say, and he springs off the stool like I was born ready to not be sitting next to your very intimidating father.
“Yep.” He scrubs his hands down the fronts of his pants legs. “Yeah.” It’s right around then that he clocks the box of condoms tucked under my arm.
“This?” I say. “This is just five hundred condoms my mom gave me in case we start boning.”
Alex’s face flushes.
“Poppy!” Mom cries.
Dad looks over his shoulder, aghast. “Since when are you two romantically involved?”
“I don’t . . . We don’t . . . do that, sir,” Alex tries.
“Here, will you carry these out to the car, Dad?” I toss them over the island to him. “My arm’s getting tired from holding it. Hopefully our hotel has those big luggage carts.”
Alex is still not-quite-looking at Dad. “We really aren’t . . .”
Mom digs her hands into her hips. “That was supposed to be private. Look, you’re embarrassing him. Don’t embarrass him, Poppy. Don’t be embarrassed, Alex.”
“It was never going to be private for long,” I say. “If that box doesn’t fit in the trunk, we’re going to have to strap it to the top of the station wagon.”
Dad sets the box on the side table and starts reading the side of it with a furrow in his brow. “Are these really made out of lambskin? Are they reusable?”
Alex cannot hide his shudder.
Mom offers up, “I wasn’t sure if either of them is allergic to latex!”
“Okay, we’ve got to hit the road,” I say. “Come give us hugs goodbye. The next time you see us, you might just be grandpar—” I drop off, stop rubbing my tummy meaningfully when I see the look on Alex’s face. “Kidding! We’re just friends. Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad!”
“Oh, you’re going to have an amazing time. I can’t wait to hear all about it.” Mom comes out from behind the counter and pulls me into a hug. “Be good,” she says. “And don’t forget to call your brothers when you get down there! They’re desperate to hear from you!”
Over her shoulder I mouth at Alex, desperate, and he finally cracks a smile.
“Love you, kiddo.” Dad clambers off the stool to give me a squeeze. “You take care of my little baby, okay?” he says to Alex before pulling him into the backslap hug that startles him anew every time it happens. “Don’t let her get engaged to a country singer or break her neck on a mechanical bull.”
“Of course,” Alex says.
“We’ll see,” I say, and then they walk us outside—box of condoms left safely on the island—and wave to us as we back down the driveway, and Alex grins and waves back until we’re finally out of sight, at which point he looks at me and says flatly, “I am very mad at you.”
“How can I make it up to you?” I bat my eyelashes like a sexy cartoon cat.
He rolls his eyes, but a smirk twists up in the corner of his mouth as his eyes return to the road. “For one thing, you are definitely riding a mechanical bull.”
I kick my feet up onto the dashboard, proudly displaying the cowgirl boots I found at a thrift store a few weeks ago. “Way ahead of you.”
His eyes slide to me, move down my legs to the bright red leather. “And those are supposed to keep you on a mechanical bull how?”
I click my heels together. “They’re not. They’re just supposed to charm the handsome country singer at the bar into scraping me off the mat and into his farm-buff arms.”
“Farm buff,” Alex snorts, unimpressed by the idea.
“Says Gym-Buff,” I tease.
He frowns. “I exercise for my anxiety.”
“Yes, I’m sure you couldn’t care less about that gorgeous body. It’s incidental.”
His jaw pulses, and his eyes fix on the road again. “I like to look nice,” he says in a voice that implies an added, Is that a crime?
“I do too.” I slide one of my feet along the dash until my red boot is in his field of vision. “Obviously.”
His gaze darts over my leg down to the middle console where his aux cable sits in a neat loop. “Here.” He hands it to me. “Why don’t you get us started?”
These days we always take turns running sound in the station wagon, but Alex always gives me the first shot, because he is Alex, and he is the best.
I insist on an all-country playlist for the length of the drive. Mine is populated by Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and Dolly Parton. His is all Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash, and a helping of Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams.
We found the hotel on Groupon months ago, and it’s one of those kitschy, one-off places with a neon-pink sign (cartoon cowboy hat balanced atop the word VACANCY) that makes the nickname “Nashvegas” finally make sense to me.
We check in and take our stuff inside. Each room is vaguely themed after a famous Nashville musician. Meaning there are framed pictures of them all over the room, and then the same hideous floral comforters and dense tan fleeces on all the beds. I tried to request the Kitty Wells room, but apparently when you book through Groupon, you don’t get to pick.
We are in the Billy Ray Cyrus room.
“Do you think he gets paid for this?” I ask Alex, who’s pulling up the bedding to check for bedbugs along the bottom of the mattresses.
“Doubtful,” he says. “Maybe they throw him the occasional frozen yogurt Groupon or something.” He pushes back the drapes and gazes out at the flashing neon sign. “Do they do rooms by the hour here?” he says skeptically.