People We Meet on Vacation

Page 36

I nod, and the silence unfurls awkwardly until I ask, “How’s your dad?”

“Yeah,” Alex says. “Good. He’s doing good. I told you about the bumper sticker?”

I smile. “You did.”

He gives a self-conscious laugh and thrusts his hand through his hair. “God, getting old is boring. My best party story is that my dad got a new bumper sticker.”

“Pretty great story,” I insist.

“You’re right.” His head tilts. “Next do you want to hear about my dishwasher?”

I gasp and clutch my heart. “You own your own dishwasher? Like, it’s in your name?”

“Um. They don’t typically register dishwashers to your name, but yes, I bought it. Right after I got the house.”

A nameless emotion stabs at my chest. “You . . . bought a house?”

“I didn’t tell you?”

I shake my head. Of course he didn’t tell me. When would he have told me? But still it hurts. Every single thing I’ve missed in the last two years hurts.

“My grandparents’ house,” he says. “After my grandma passed away. She left it to my dad, and he wanted to sell it, but it needs work he didn’t have the time or money for, so I’ve been living in it, fixing it up.”

“Betty?” I swallow the tangle of emotions rising in my throat. I only met Alex’s grandmother a few times, but I loved her. She was tinier than me and fierce, a lover of murder mysteries and crocheting, spicy food and modern art. She’d fallen in love with her priest and he’d left the priesthood to marry her (“And that’s how we became Protestants!”) and then (“eight months later,” she told me with a wink), Alex’s mother had been born with a head of thick dark hair just like hers and a “strong” nose like Alex’s grandfather, God rest his soul.

Her house was a funky quad-level from the early sixties. It had the original orange and yellow floral wallpaper in the living room, and she’d had to put ugly brown carpet over the hardwood and tile—even in the bathroom—after she slipped and broke her hip several years ago.

“Betty’s gone?” I whisper.

“It was peaceful,” Alex says, without looking at me. “You know, she was really, really old.” He’s started to fold our straw wrappers, precisely, into small squares. He shows no sign of emotion, but I know Betty was pretty much his favorite family member, maybe tied with David.

“God, I’m sorry.” I fight to keep my voice from shaking, but my emotion is rising, tidal-wave style. “Flannery O’Connor and Betty. I wish you’d told me.”

His hazel eyes drag up to mine. “I wasn’t sure you wanted to hear from me.”

I blink back tears, glance away, and pretend I’m sweeping my hair out of my face rather than wiping at my eyes. When I look back at him, his gaze is still fixed on me.

“I did,” I say. Shit, the tremors have arrived.

Even the mariachi band playing in the back room seems to quiet to a hum, so that it’s just us in this red booth with its colorful hand-carved table.

“Well,” Alex says softly. “Now I know.”

I want to ask if he wanted to talk to me in all that time, if he ever typed out messages that went unsent or thought about calling for so long he actually started to dial.

If he too feels like he lost two good years of his life when we stopped talking, and why he let it happen. I want him to say things can be how they were before, when there was nothing we couldn’t say to each other, and being together was as easy and natural as being alone, without any of the loneliness.

But then our server comes by with the check. I instinctively reach for it before Alex can.

“That’s not R+R’s card?” he says, like it’s a question.

Without actively deciding to, I lie. “They just reimburse us now.” My hands tingle, itch with discomfort over the deception, but it’s too late to take it back.

When we get outside, it’s dark and starry. The heat of the day has broken, and though it still must be in the upper seventies, it’s nothing compared to the one hundred and six we were dealing with earlier. There’s even a breeze. We’re silent as we cross the parking lot to the Aspire. There’s a heaviness between us now that we’ve brushed against what happened in Croatia.

I’d convinced myself we could leave it in the past, but now I realize that every time I learn something new from the last two years, it will press on that same raw spot in my heart.

It’s got to be having some kind of effect on him too, but he’s always been good at bottling up his feelings when he doesn’t want to share them.

The whole ride home I want to say, I’d take it back. If it would fix this, I’d take it back.

When we reach the apartment, it is officially hotter inside than outside. We both beeline for the thermostat. “Eighty-one?” he says. “It went up again?”

I rub the bridge of my nose. A headache is starting behind my eyes, from heat or alcohol or stress, or all of it. “Okay. Okay. We’ve got to turn it back up to eighty, right? And let it drop to that before we lower it again?”

Alex stares at the thermostat like it just knocked an ice cream cone out of his hand. There are unintentional shades of Sad Puppy Face in his expression.

“One degree at a time. That’s what Nikolai said.”

He adjusts the temperature to eighty, and I slide open the door to the balcony.

But the wall of plastic sheeting is keeping out the fresh air. In the kitchenette, I rifle through drawers until I find a pair of scissors.

“What are you doing?” Alex asks, following me onto the balcony.

“Just the bare fucking minimum,” I say, slicing the scissors into the middle of the plastic.

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