“You monster!” I scold.
He flips the phone around to look at the picture and moans. “Noooo,” he says. “I am a monster.”
I choke over a laugh as I study the horrible ghostly blur of our faces: his wet hair sticking out in stringy spikes, mine plastered in frizzy tendrils around my cheeks, everything on us shiny and red from the heat, my eyes fully closed, his squinted and puffy. “How is it possible we’re both so hard to see and so bad-looking simultaneously?”
Laughing, he throws his head back against his headrest. “Okay, I’m deleting it.”
“No!” I fight the phone out of his hand. He grabs hold of it too, but I don’t let go, so we just hold it between us on the console. “That was the point, Alex. To remember this trip how it really was. And to look like ourselves.”
His smile is as small and faint as ever. “Poppy, you don’t look anything like that picture.”
I shake my head. “And you don’t either.”
For a long moment, we’re silent, like there’s nothing else to say now that this has been settled.
“Next year let’s go somewhere cold,” Alex says. “And dry.”
“Okay,” I say, grinning. “We’ll go somewhere cold.”
POPPY,” SWAPNA SAYS from the head of the dull gray conference table. “What have you got?”
For the benevolent ruler of the Rest + Relaxation empire, Swapna Bakshi-Highsmith could not possibly exude any less of our fine magazine’s two core values.
The last time Swapna rested was probably three years ago, when she was eight and a half months pregnant and on doctor-mandated bed rest. Even then, she spent the whole time video-chatting with the office, her laptop balanced on her belly, so I don’t think there was a ton of relaxation involved. Everything about her is sharp and pointed and smart, from her slicked-back high-fashion bob to her studded Alexander Wang pumps.
Her winged eyeliner could slice through an aluminum can, and her emerald eyes could crush it afterward. In this moment, both are pointed squarely at me. “Poppy? Hello?”
I blink out of my daze and skootch forward in my chair, clearing my throat. This has been happening to me a lot lately. When you have a job where you’re only required to come into the office once a week, it’s not ideal to zone out like a kid in algebra for fifty percent of that time, even less so to do it in front of your equal parts terrifying and inspiring boss.
I study the notepad in front of me. I used to come to the Friday meetings with dozens of excitedly scribbled pitches. Ideas for stories about unfamiliar festivals in other countries, locally famous restaurants with colloquial deep-fried desserts, natural phenomena on particular beaches in South America, up-and-coming vineyards in New Zealand—or new trends among the thrill-seeking set and modes of deep relaxation for the spa crowd.
I used to write these notes in a kind of panic, like every experience I hoped to someday have was a living thing growing in my body, stretching branches out to push on my insides, demanding to break out of me. I’d spend three days before pitch meetings in something of a sweaty Google trance, scrolling through image after image of places I’d never been, a feeling something like hunger growling in my gut.
Today, however, I spent ten minutes writing down the names of countries.
Countries, not even cities.
Swapna is looking at me, waiting for me to pitch my next big summer feature for next year, and I’m staring at the word Brazil.
Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world. Brazil is 5.6 percent of the earth’s mass. You cannot write a short, snappy piece about vacationing in Brazil. You have to at least choose a specific region.
I flip the page in my notebook, pretending to study the next one. It’s blank. When my coworker Garrett leans toward me as if to read over my shoulder, I snap it closed. “St. Petersburg,” I say.
Swapna arches an eyebrow, paces along the head of the table. “We did St. Petersburg in our summer issue three years ago. The White Nights celebration, remember?”
“Amsterdam?” Garrett throws out next to me.
“Amsterdam’s a spring city,” Swapna says, vaguely annoyed. “You’re not going to feature Amsterdam and not include the tulips.”
I once heard she’s been to upwards of seventy-five countries and many of those twice.
She pauses, holding her phone in one hand and tapping it against her other palm as she thinks. “Besides, Amsterdam is so . . . trendy.”
It is Swapna’s closely held belief that to be on trend is to be already late to that trend. If she senses the zeitgeist warming to the idea of Toruń, Poland, then Toruń’s off the docket for the next ten years. There’s a literal list pushpinned into a wall by the cubicles (Toruń is not on this list) of Places R+R Will Not Cover. Each entry is in her handwriting and dated, and there’s something of an underground betting pool on when a city will be freed from the List. There’s never so much quiet excitement in the office as those mornings when Swapna marches in, designer laptop bag on her arm, and strides up to the List with a pen already out, ready to cross off one of these banned cities.
Everyone watches with bated breath, wondering which city she’s rescuing from R+R obscurity, and once she’s safely in her office, door shut, whoever’s closest to the List will run up to it, read the scratched-out entry, and turn to whisper the name of the city to everyone in editorial. There’s usually silent celebration.
When Paris was relinquished from the List last fall, someone broke out champagne and Garrett pulled a red beret out of a drawer in his desk, where he’d apparently been hiding it for just such an occasion. He wore it all day, jerking it off his head every time we heard the click and whine of Swapna’s door. He thought he’d gotten away with it too, until she paused beside his desk on her way out for the night and said, “Au revoir, Garrett.”