“It’s different,” he insists.
“How?” I snap.
“Because you don’t want the same things I want,” he says, half shouting, possibly the loudest I’ve ever heard him speak, and while his voice isn’t angry, it’s definitely frustrated.
When I rear back from him, I see him deflate a little, embarrassed.
He goes on, quiet and controlled once more. “I want all that stuff my brothers have,” he says. “I want to get married and have kids and grandkids and get really fucking old with my wife, and to live in our house for so long that it smells like us. Like, I want to pick out fucking furniture and paint colors and do all that Linfield stuff you think is so unbearable, okay? That’s what I want. And I don’t want to wait. No one knows how long they get, and I don’t want ten more years to go by and to find out I have fucking dick cancer or something and it’s too late for me. That stuff is what matters to me.”
Any remaining fire goes out of him, but I’m still quivering with nerves and hurt and shame, and most of all anger with myself for not understanding what was going on every time he defended our Podunk hometown, or changed the topic from Sarah, or anything else.
“Alex,” I say, on the verge of tears. I shake my head, trying to clear the storm clouds of gathering emotion. “I don’t think that stuff is unbearable. I don’t think any of it’s unbearable.”
His eyes lift heavily to mine, dart away again. Careful not to knock him, I shift closer and pull his hand into mine, fold my fingers through his. “Alex?”
He looks down at me. “Sorry,” he murmurs. “I’m sorry, Poppy.”
I shake my head. “I love Betty’s house,” I say. “And I love thinking about you having it, and as much as I hated school, I love thinking about you teaching there and how lucky those kids are. And I love what a good brother and son you are, and—” My words catch in my throat, and I have to stammer tearily through the rest of them. “And I don’t want you to marry Sarah, because she takes you for granted. She would never have broken up with you in the first place if she didn’t. And honestly, aside from that, I don’t want you to marry her, because she never liked me, and if you marry her . . .” I trail off before I can start sobbing.
If you marry her, I think, I will lose all of you forever.
And then, Probably no matter who you marry, I will have to lose you forever.
“I know that’s so selfish,” I say. “But it’s not just that. I really think you can do better. Sarah will be great for someone, but not for you. She doesn’t like karaoke, Alex.”
This last part comes out pathetically teary, and as he gazes down at me, he tries his best to hide the smile that pulls at his mouth. He frees his hand from mine and wraps his arm around me, pressing me lightly to him, but I don’t let myself sink into him like I want for fear of hurting him.
This injury, while miserable for him, is actually turning out to be a good buffer, because everywhere we’re touching has started to buzz, like my nerves are jockeying for more of him. He presses a kiss to the top of my head, and it feels like someone cracked an egg there, something warm and sultry dripping down over me.
I shove down the hazy memories of everything that mouth did in Croatia.
“I’m not sure I actually can do better,” Alex says, drawing me out of a blushworthy scene. “When I open Tinder, it just shows me a middle finger.”
“Seriously?” I sit up. “You have a Tinder account?”
He rolls his eyes. “Yes, Poppy. Grandpa has a Tinder.”
“Let me see it.”
His ears go red. “No, thanks. I’m not in the mood to get brutally heckled.”
“I can help you, Alex,” I say. “I’m a straight woman. I know how men’s Tinder profiles are received. I can figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
“What I’m doing wrong is trying to find a meaningful connection on a dating app.”
“Well, obviously,” I say. “But let’s see what else.”
He sighs. “Fine.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and hands it to me. “But go easy on me, Poppy. I’m fragile right now.”
And then he makes the face.
Seven Summers Ago
Alex is curious about the architecture—all those old Crayola-colored buildings with their wrought-iron balconies and the ancient trees writhing up right through the sidewalks, roots sprawling out for yards in every direction, breaking up cement like it’s nothing. The trees predate it, and they’ll outlast it.
I’m excited for alcohol in slushy form and kitschy supernatural shops.
Luckily there is no shortage of any of it.
I’m thrilled to find a large studio apartment not far from Bourbon Street. The floors are stained dark, and the furniture is heavy wood, and colorful paintings of jazz musicians hang on exposed brick walls. The beds are cheap looking, as is the bedding, but they’re queens, and the place is clean, and the air-conditioning game is so strong we have to crank it down so that every time we come in after a day in the heat, our teeth don’t chatter.
All there really is to do in New Orleans, it seems, is walk, eat, drink, look, and listen. This is basically what we do on every trip, but the fact is underscored here by the hundreds of restaurants and bars sitting shoulder to shoulder on every slender street. And the thousands of people milling through the city with tall neon novelty cups and mismatched straws. Every block or so the smells of the city switch from fried and delicious to stinking and rotten, the humidity trapping the sewage and putting it on display.
Compared to most American cities, everything looks so old that I imagine we’re smelling waste from the 1700s, which miraculously makes it more bearable.