“I think she feels kind of weird about the trip,” Alex admits on one of our (now fewer and farther between) calls. I’m pretty sure he only calls me from the car, when he’s on his way to or from the gym. I want to tell him that calling me only when she’s not around probably isn’t helping.
But the truth is, I don’t want to talk to him while anyone else is around, so instead this is what has become of our friendship. Fifteen-minute calls every couple weeks, no texting, no messaging, hardly any emailing except the occasional one-liner with a picture of the tiny black cat he found in the dumpster behind his apartment complex.
She looks like a kitten, but according to the vet she’s fully grown, just small. He sends me pictures of her sitting in shoes and hats and bowls, always writing for scale, but really I know he just thinks everything she does is adorable. And sure, it’s cute that cats like to sit in things . . . but it’s quite possibly cuter that Alex can’t stop himself from taking pictures of it.
He hasn’t named her yet; he’s taking his time. He says it wouldn’t feel right to name a grown thing without knowing it, so for now he calls her cat or tiny sweetie or little friend.
Sarah wants to call her Sadie, but Alex doesn’t think that fits so he’s biding his time. The cat is the only thing we ever talk about these days. I’m surprised Alex would be so forthright as to tell me that Sarah feels weird about the Summer Trip.
“Of course she does,” I tell him, “I would too.” I don’t blame her at all. If my boyfriend had a friendship with a girl like Alex’s and mine, I would wind up in The Yellow Wallpaper.
There’s no way in hell I could believe it was wholly platonic. Especially having been in this friendship long enough to accept that five (to fifteenish) percent of what-if as part of the deal.
“So what do we do?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, trying not to sound miserable. “Do you want to invite her?”
He’s quiet for a minute. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Okay . . .” And then, after the longest pause ever, I say, “Should we just . . . cancel?”
Alex sighs. He must have me on speakerphone because I can hear his turn signal clicking. “I don’t know, Poppy. I’m not sure.”
“Yeah. Me neither.”
We stay on the phone, but neither of us says anything else for the rest of his drive. “I just got home,” he says eventually. “Let’s talk about this again in a few weeks. Things could change by then.”
What things? I want to ask, but don’t, because once your best friend is someone else’s boyfriend, the boundaries between what you can and can’t say get a whole lot firmer.
I spend the whole night after our phone call thinking, Is he going to break up with her? Is she going to break up with him?
Is he going to try to reason with her?
Is he going to break up with me?
When I get the offer of a free stay from the resort in Vail, I send him the first text I’ve sent in months: Hey! Give me a call when you’ve got a sec!
At five thirty the next morning, my phone rings me awake. I peer through the dark at his name on the screen and fumble the call on to hear his turn signal tapping out a rhythm. He’s on his way to the gym. “What’s up?” he asks.
“I’m dead,” I groan.
“Colorado,” I say. “Vail.”
I WAKE UP NEXT to Alex. He insisted that the bed in Nikolai’s Airbnb was plenty big, that neither of us should risk another night on the foldout chair, but we’re right in the middle of the mattress by the time morning comes.
I’m on my right side, facing him. He’s on his left, facing me. There’s half a foot between us, except that my left leg is sprawled over him, my thigh hooked up against his hip, his hand resting high up on it.
The apartment is hellishly hot, and we’re both drenched with sweat.
I need to extricate myself before Alex wakes up, but the ludicrous part of my brain wants to stay here, replaying the look he gave me, the way his voice sounded last night when he sized up my dating profile and said, “I would.”
Like a dare.
Then again, he was on muscle relaxants at the time.
Today, if he remembers that at all, he will almost definitely be regretful and embarrassed.
Or maybe he’ll remember sitting next to me for the length of an egregiously underwhelming documentary about the Kinks and feeling like a live wire, sparking every time our arms brushed.
“You usually fall asleep during these,” he pointed out with a mild smile, jostling his leg against mine, but when he looked down at me, his hazel eyes seemed to be part of a different expression entirely, one with sharp edges and even some hunger.
I shrugged, said something like, “Just not tired,” and tried to focus on the movie. Time moved at an oily slog, every second beside him striking me with new intensity as if we’d just started touching again and again and again for almost two hours.
It was early when the movie ended, so we started another documentary that was boring and mindless, just background noise to make it feel okay that we were riding this line.
At least I was pretty sure that was what we’d been doing.
The way his hand is spread over my thigh now sends another prickly rush of want through me. A very nonsensical part of me wants to nestle closer, until we’re touching all over, and wait to see what happens when he wakes up.
All those memories from Croatia froth to the surface of my mind, sending desperate flashes out through my body.
I pull my leg off him, and his hand tightens on me reflexively, loosening when I drag myself clear from under it. I roll away and sit up just as Alex is stirring awake, his eyes slitting open sleepily, hair wild with bedhead. “Hey,” he rasps.