“No,” he says. “It’s just helpful to carry cash.”
The sun is going down, and we’re both bone-tired, but it’s our last night, so we decide to get cleaned up and rally. While I’m sitting on the floor in front of the full-length mirror, putting on makeup, I peruse Guillermo’s list and shout out suggestions to Alex.
“Eh,” he says after each one. After a handful, he comes to stand behind me, making eye contact in the mirror. “Can we just wander?”
“I’d love to,” I admit.
We hit a couple dingy pubs before we wind up at the Dungeon, a small, dark goth bar at the end of a skinny alleyway. We’re told that pictures are expressly forbidden, before the bouncer lets us into the red-lit front room. It’s so packed that I have to hold on to Alex’s elbow as we make our way upstairs. There are plastic skeletons hanging on the wall, and a red-satin-lined coffin stands waiting for a photo op that you’re not allowed to take.
Despite our mantra for this trip, and all the free personal shopping I’ve done for him, Alex has continued to largely loathe themed parties, events, and apparently bars too.
“This place is horrible,” he says. “You love it, don’t you?”
I nod, and he grins. We have to stand so close I have to tip my head all the way back to see him at all. He brushes my hair from my eyes and cups the back of my neck, as if to stabilize it. “I’m sorry for being so tall,” he says over the metal music thrumming through the bar.
“I’m sorry for being so short,” I say.
“I like you short,” he says. “Never apologize for being short.”
I lean into him, a hug minus the arms. “Hey,” I say.
“Hey, what?” he asks.
“Can we go to that country-western bar we passed?”
I’m sure he doesn’t want to. I’m sure he finds the whole thing humiliating. But what he says is, “We have to. Theme matters, Poppy.”
So we go there next, and it’s the polar opposite of the Dungeon, a big open bar with saddles for seats and Kenny Chesney blaring out to no one but us.
Alex is chagrined at the thought of sitting on the saddles, but I hop up and try to make his Sad Puppy Face at him.
“What is that?” he says. “Are you okay?”
“I’m being pathetic,” I say. “So that you will please make me the happiest woman in the state of Louisiana and sit on one of these saddle seats.”
“I can’t decide if you’re too easy to please or too hard,” he says, and swings one leg over, pulling himself onto the saddle next to mine. “Excuse me,” he says, to a burly bartender in a black leather vest. “Give me something that will make me forget this ever happened.”
Still polishing a glass, he turns and glares. “I’m no mind reader, kid. What do you want?”
Alex’s cheeks flush. He clears his throat. “Beer’s fine. Whatever you’ve got.”
“Make that two,” I say. “Two of those alcohols, please.”
As the bartender turns to get our drinks, I lean over to Alex and almost fall off my saddle in the process. He catches me and holds me up as I whisper, “He’s so on theme!”
It’s only eleven thirty when we leave, but I’m wiped out and as unthirsty as I’ve ever been in my life. So we just walk down the middle of the street with all the other revelers: families in matching reunion T-shirts; white-clad brides with silky pink BACHELORETTE sashes and towering heels; drunk middle-aged men hitting on the girls in pink BACHELORETTE sashes, stuffing dollar bills in their dress straps as they walk past.
Overhead, people line the upstairs balconies of bars and restaurants, waving purple, gold, and green beads around, and when a man wolf-whistles and shakes a handful of necklaces at me, I hold my arms up to catch them. He shakes his head and pantomimes lifting his shirt up.
“I hate him,” I say to Alex.
“Me too,” Alex agrees.
“But I have to admit, he is on theme.”
Alex laughs, and we walk onward, with no destination in mind. Gradually, the foot traffic slows as we approach a brass band (saxophone-and-other-woodwind free) that’s set up shop in the middle of the street, horns blasting, drums rattling. We stop to watch, and a few couples start dancing. In the twist of the century, Alex offers me his hand, and when I take it, he twirls me in a lazy circle and pulls me in close, one hand around my back, the other folded against mine. He rocks me back and forth, and we both giggle sleepily. We’re not on the beat, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just us.
Maybe that’s why he can handle the public affection. Maybe, like me, when we’re together he feels like no one else is there, like they’re phantoms we dreamed up as set dressing.
Even if Jason Stanley and every other bully from my past were here, mocking me through a megaphone, I don’t think I’d stop dancing clumsily with Alex in the street. He spins me out and back in, tries to dip me, almost drops me. I yelp when it happens, laugh so hard I snort when he catches me and swings me upright onto my feet, rocking me some more.
When the song ends, we break apart and join the crowd in applause. Alex crouches for a second, and when he stands up, he’s holding out a strand of chipped purple Mardi Gras beads.
“Those were on the ground,” I say.
“You don’t want them?”
“No, I want them,” I say. “But they were on the ground.”
“Yes,” he says.
“Where there’s dirt,” I say. “And spilled booze. Possibly vomit.”
He winces, starts to lower the beads. I catch his wrist, stilling him. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you for touching these filthy beads for me, Alex. I love them.”