I check my phone. Eleven oh three. Just under thirty minutes left to feed the giraffes.
I stand in line for ten minutes to get the premade turkey club, then jog back to find Alex sitting where I left him, his head resting in his hands.
“Hey,” I say, and his glass eyes rise. “Feeling any better?”
“I’m not sure,” he says, and accepts the sandwich, unwrapping it. “Want some?”
He gives me half, and I take a couple bites, trying my best not to time him as he slowly munches on his half. At eleven twenty-two, I ask, “Is it helping?”
“I think so. I feel less dizzy anyway.”
“Do you think you’re okay to walk?”
“Are we . . . in a hurry?” he asks.
“No, of course not,” I say. “There’s just this thing. Your surprise. It ends pretty soon.”
He nods, but he looks queasy, so I’m torn between pushing him to rally or insisting he stay put. “I’m okay,” he says, climbing to his feet. “Just need to remember to drink more water.”
We make it to the giraffes at eleven thirty-five.
“Sorry,” a teenage employee tells me. “Giraffe feeding is over for the day.”
As she walks away, Alex looks at me hazily. “Sorry, Pop. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”
“Of course not,” I insist. I don’t care about feeding giraffes (at least not much). What I care about is making this trip good. Proving we should keep taking them. That we can salvage our friendship.
That’s why I’m disappointed. Because it’s the first strike of the day.
My phone buzzes with a message, and at least it’s some good news.
Nikolai writes, Got all of you [sic] messages. I’ll see what I can do.
Okay, I write back. Just keep us updated.
“Come on,” I say, “let’s go somewhere air-conditioned until our next stop.”
Six Summers Ago
I DON’T KNOW HOW Alex got Sarah on board with the Vail trip, but he did.
Asking how strikes me as dangerous. There are things we talk around these days, to keep everything aboveboard, and Alex is careful not to share anything that might embarrass Sarah.
There’s no talk of jealousy. Maybe there is no jealousy. Maybe there’s some other reason she didn’t initially like the idea of the trip. But she changes her mind, and the trip is on, and once Alex and I are together, I stop worrying about it. Things feel normal between us again, that fifteenish percent of what-if shrunken back to a manageable two.
We rent bikes and rumble over the cobblestone streets, take a gondola up the mountain, and pose for photos with the vast blue sky behind us, wind blowing our hair across our faces in midlaugh. We sit on patios, sipping chilled green tea or coffee in the mornings before it gets hot, take long hikes on mountain trails during the day with our sweatshirts shed and tied around our waists, only to wind up at different outdoor patios, drinking red wine and sharing three orders of fries with pressed garlic and freshly grated Parmesan. We sit outside until we’re goose-bump-covered and shivering, and then pull on our sweatshirts, and I draw my knees up to my chest inside mine. Every time I do this, Alex leans over and flicks my hood up over my head, then tugs the drawstrings tight so that only the very middle of my face is visible, and most of that is blocked by tufts of wind-tangled blond hair.
“Cutie,” he says, grinning, the first time he does this, but it feels almost brotherly.
One night, there’s a live band playing Van Morrison hits while we’re eating dinner outside under strands of globe lights that remind me of the night we met as freshmen. We follow older couples onto the dance floor, hand in hand. We move like we did back in New Orleans—clumsy and rhythmless but laughing, happy.
Now that it’s behind us, I can admit that things were different that night.
In the magic of the city and its music and smells and glimmering lights, I felt something I’d never felt with him before. Scarier than that, I’d known from the way Alex looked into my eyes, smoothed his hand down my arm, eased his cheek against mine, that he felt it too.
But now, dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl,” the heat has gone out of his touch. And I’m happy, because I never want to lose this.
I would rather have one tiny sliver of him forever than have all of him for just a moment and know I’d have to relinquish all of it when we were through. I could never lose Alex. I couldn’t. And so this is good, this peaceful, sparkless dance. This sparkless trip.
Alex calls Sarah twice a day, morning and night, but never in front of me. In the morning, they talk while he jogs, before I’m even out of bed, and when he gets back, he wakes me up with coffee and a pastry from the café in the resort’s clubhouse. At night, he steps out onto the balcony to call her and shuts the door behind him.
“I don’t want you to make fun of my phone voice,” he says.
“God, I’m an asshole,” I say, and though he laughs, I do feel bad. Teasing has always been a big part of our dynamic, and it’s felt like our thing. But there are things he won’t do in front of me now, parts of him he doesn’t trust with me, and I don’t like how that feels.
When he comes inside after his jog and morning call the next day, I sit up sleepily to accept the proffered coffee and croissant and say, “Alex Nilsen, for whatever it’s worth, I’m sure your phone voice is amazing.”
He blushes, rubs the back of his head. “It’s not.”
“I bet you’re all buttery and warm and sweet and perfect.”
“Are you talking to me or the croissant?” he asks.
“I love you, croissant,” I say, and tear a piece off, lowering it into my mouth. He stands there, hands in his pockets, grinning, and my heart swells, Grinch-style, just looking at him. “But I’m talking about you.”