“Usually just a day if I stay still,” he says. “I’ll have to be careful tomorrow, but I’ll be able to move around. You should go do something you know I’d hate.” He forces another smile.
I ignore the comment and search through the bag until I find the Icy Hot. “Need help leaning forward again?”
“No, I’m good.” But the face he makes suggests otherwise, so I shift beside him, take his shoulders in my hands, and slowly help him ease upright.
“I feel like you’re my nurse right now,” he says bitterly.
“Like, in a hot and sexy way?” I say, trying to lighten his mood.
“In a sad-old-man-who-can’t-take-care-of-himself way,” he says.
“You own a house,” I say. “I bet you even ripped the carpet out of the bathroom.”
“I did,” he agrees.
“Clearly you can take care of yourself,” I say. “I can’t even keep a houseplant alive.”
“That’s because you’re never home,” he says.
I twist the top off the Icy Hot and get a glob onto my fingers. “I don’t think so. I got these hardy things, pothos and ZZ plants and snake plants—they’re, like, the kinds of plants they stick in lightless malls for months at a time and they still don’t die. Then they move into my apartment and immediately give up on life.” I steady his rib cage with one hand so I don’t jostle him too much and, with my other, reach around to carefully massage the cream onto his back.
“Is that the right place?” I ask.
“A little higher and to the left. My left.”
“Here?” I look up at him, and he nods. I tear my gaze away and focus on his back, my fingers turning gentle circles over the spot.
“I hate that you have to do this,” he says, and my eyes wander back to his, which are low and serious beneath a furrowed brow.
My heart feels like it drops through my chest and soars back up. “Alex, has it ever occurred to you that I might like taking care of you?” I say. “I mean, obviously I don’t love that you’re in pain, and I hate that I let you sleep in that abominable chair, but if someone’s going to have to be your nurse, I’m honored it’s me.”
His mouth presses closed, and neither of us says anything for a few moments.
I pull my hands away from him. “Hungry?”
“I’m okay,” he says.
“Well, that’s too bad.” I go to the kitchen and rinse the leftover Icy Hot off my hands, grab a couple of glasses, and fill them with ice, then return to the bed and arrange the remaining grocery bags in a row. “Because . . .” I pull out a box of donuts with a flourish, like a magician producing a bunny from a hat. Alex looks dubious.
He isn’t a big sugar person. I think that’s partly why he smells so good, like even the obsessive cleanliness aside, his breath and body odor are always just sort of good and I’m guessing it’s because he does not eat like a ten-year-old. Or a Wright.
“And for you,” I say, and dump out the yogurt cups, box of granola, and berry mix, along with a bottle of cold-brew. The apartment’s way too hot for drip coffee.
“Wow,” he says, grinning. “You’re a real hero.”
“I know,” I say. “I mean, thank you.”
We sit and feast, picnic-style, on the bed. I eat mostly donuts and a few bites of Alex’s yogurt. He eats mostly yogurt but also devours half of a strawberry donut. “I never eat this stuff,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
“It’s pretty good,” he says.
“It speaks to me,” I say, but if he catches the reference to that very first trip we took together, he ignores it, and my heart sinks.
It’s possible that all those little moments that meant so much to me never meant quite the same thing to him. It’s possible that he didn’t reach out to me for two full years because, when we stopped speaking, he didn’t lose something precious the way that I did.
We have five more days of this trip, counting today—though today and tomorrow are our last wedding-event-free days—and right now I dread something bigger than awkwardness.
I think about heartbreak. The full-fledged version of this thing I’m feeling right now, but sprawling out for days on end with no relief or escape. Five days of pretending to feel fine, while inside me something is tearing into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s nothing but scraps.
Alex sets his cold brew on the side table and looks at me. “You really should go out.”
“I don’t want to,” I say.
“Of course you want to,” he says. “This is your trip, Poppy. And I know you haven’t gotten everything you need for your article.”
“The article can wait.”
His head cocks uncertainly. “Please, Poppy,” he says. “I’ll feel terrible if you’re stuck inside with me all day.”
I want to tell him I’ll feel terrible if I leave. I want to say, All I wanted for this trip was to be anywhere with you all day or Who cares about seeing Palm Springs when it’s one hundred degrees out or I love you so much it sometimes hurts. Instead I say, “Okay.”
Then I get up and go to the bathroom to get ready. Before I go, I bring Alex an ice pack and swap out the heating pad. “Are you going to be able to do this on your own?” I ask.
“I’m just gonna sleep when you leave,” he says. “I’ll be fine without you, Poppy.”
This is the last thing I want to hear.
* * *
• • •
NO OFFENSE TO the Palm Springs Art Museum, but I just don’t really care. Maybe I could under different circumstances, but under these circumstances, it is clear to me and everyone working here that I’m just killing time. I’ve never really known how to look at art without someone else there to be my guidepost.