“I think about that every time I’m in an airport,” I tell her. “It’s one reason I love traveling so much.” I hesitate, searching for how to pour this long-steeping soupy thought into concrete words. “As a kid, I was a loner,” I explain, “and I always figured that when I grew up, I’d leave my hometown and discover other people like me somewhere else. Which I have, you know? But everyone gets lonely sometimes, and whenever that happens, I buy a plane ticket and go to the airport and—I don’t know. I don’t feel lonely anymore. Because no matter what makes all those people different, they’re all just trying to get somewhere, waiting to reach someone.”
Alex gives me an odd look whose meaning I can’t interpret.
“Ah, shit,” Lita says. “You’re gonna make me cry. These damn pregnancy hormones. I react worse to them than I did to ayahuasca.”
Before we part ways, Lita pulls each of us into a long hug. “If you’re ever in New York . . .” I say.
“If you ever feel like taking a real rafting trip,” she answers with a wink.
Several silent minutes into our drive back to the resort, with worried creases shooting up from the insides of his eyebrows, Alex says, “I hate thinking about you being lonely.”
I must look confused, because he clarifies: “The thing about how you go to the airport. When you feel like you’re alone.”
“I’m not really that lonely anymore,” I say.
I have the group text with Parker and Prince—we’ve been planning out a no-budget Jaws musical. Then there are the weekly calls with both my parents on speakerphone. Plus there’s Rachel, who’s really come through for me post-Guillermo, with invites to exercise classes and wine bars and volunteering days at dog shelters.
Even though Alex and I don’t talk as much as we used to, there are also the short stories he’s been mailing me with brief hand-scribbled notes on Post-its. He could email them, but he doesn’t, and after I’ve read each hard copy, I put it in a shoebox where I’ve started keeping the things that matter to me. (One shoebox, so I don’t end up with huge plastic bins of my future children’s dragon drawings like Mom and Dad have.)
I don’t feel alone when I read his words. I don’t feel alone when I hold those Post-its in my hand and think about the person who wrote them.
“I’m sorry if I haven’t been there for you,” Alex says quietly. He opens his mouth as if to go on, then shakes his head and closes it again. We’ve made it back to the resort, pulled into our parking space, and when I turn in my seat to face him, he angles toward me too.
“Alex . . .” It takes me a few seconds to go on: “I’ve never really felt alone since I met you. I don’t think I’ll ever feel truly alone in this world again as long as you’re in it.”
His gaze softens, holds steady for a beat. “Can I tell you something embarrassing?”
For once, it doesn’t occur to me to joke, to be sarcastic. “Anything.”
He runs his hand over the steering wheel in a slow back-and-forth. “I don’t think I knew I was lonely until I met you.” He shakes his head again. “At home, after my mom died and my dad fell apart, I just wanted everyone to be okay. I wanted to be exactly what Dad needed, and exactly what my little brothers needed, and at school, I wanted to be who everyone wanted, so I tried to be calm and responsible and steady, and I think I was nineteen years old the first time it occurred to me that maybe that wasn’t how some people lived. That maybe I just was someone, beyond who I tried to be.
“I met you, and honestly . . . at first, I thought it was an act. The shocking clothes, the shocking jokes.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I tease quietly, and a smile winks in the corner of his mouth, brief as a beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
“On that first drive back to Linfield, you asked me all these questions about what I liked and what I hated, and I don’t know. It just felt like you really wanted to know.”
“Of course I did,” I say.
He nods. “I know. You asked me who I was, and—it was like the answer came out of nowhere. Sometimes it feels like I didn’t even exist before that. Like you invented me.”
Heat rushes to my cheeks, and I adjust my position in my seat, pulling my knees into my chest. “I’m not smart enough to have invented you. No one’s that smart.”
The muscles along his jaw leap as he considers his next words, never one to blurt anything out without first weighing it. “My point is, no one really knew me before you, Poppy. And even if . . . things change between us, you’ll never be alone, okay? I’ll always love you.”
Tears cloud my eyes, but miraculously I blink them clear. Somehow, my voice comes out steady and light, and not like someone reached into my rib cage and held my heart inside his hand just long enough to run a thumb across a secret wound.
“I know,” I tell him, and, “I love you too.”
It’s true, but not the full truth. There aren’t words vast or specific enough to capture the ecstasy and the ache and love and fear I feel just looking at him now.
So the moment sweeps past, and the trip goes on, and nothing is different between us, except that a part of me has woken up, like a bear emerging from hibernation with a hunger it has managed to sleep through for months but can’t ignore one second longer.
The next day, the second to last of the trip, we take a hike up a mountain pass. Near the top, I step to the edge of the path to take a photo through an opening in the trees of the deep blue lake below and lose my footing. My ankle rolls, hard and fast. It feels like the bone jabs through my foot to hit the ground, and then I’m sprawled in mud and leaves, hissing out swear words.
“Stay still,” Alex says, crouching beside me.
At first I can barely breathe, so I’m not crying, just choking, “Do I have a bone sticking out of my skin?”