“Are you comfortable?” he asks thickly, like our lying like this could just be a matter of alignment, like we’re building up a narrative that protects us from the truth of what’s happening. That even through the fog of being sick, I can feel him wanting me like I want him.
“Mm-hm,” I murmur. “Are you?”
His hand tightens on my thigh, and he nods.
“Yeah,” he says, and we both go very still.
I don’t know how long we lie there, but eventually, the cold medicine wins out over the sparking, alert nerve endings in my body and I fall asleep, only to find him safely on the other side of the bed the next time I wake up.
“You were asking for your mom,” he tells me.
“Whenever I’m sick, I miss her,” I say.
He nods, tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “Sometimes I do too.”
“Tell me about her?” I ask.
He shifts, lifting himself higher against the headboard. “What do you want to know?”
“Anything,” I whisper. “What you think about when you think about her.”
“Well, I was only six when she died,” he says, smoothing my hair again. I don’t argue or press for more, but eventually, he goes on. “She used to sing to us when she tucked us in at night. And I thought she had a beautiful voice. I mean, like, I would tell kids in my class that she was a singer. Or she would’ve been if she wasn’t a stay-at-home mom or whatever. And you know . . .” His hand stills in my hair. “My dad couldn’t talk about her. Like, at all. I mean, he still can’t really without breaking down. So growing up my brothers and I didn’t talk about her either. And when I was probably fourteen, fifteen, I went over to Grandma Betty’s house to clean her gutters and mow her lawn and stuff, and she was watching these old home movies of my mom.”
I study his face, the way his full lips curl and his eyes catch the streaks of streetlight coming through my window so that he almost looks lit from within. “We never did that at my house,” he says. “I couldn’t even remember what she sounded like. But we watched this video of her holding me as a baby. Singing this old Amy Grant song.” His eyes cut to me, his smile deepening in one corner. “And her voice was horrible.”
“How horrible are we talking here?” I ask.
“Bad enough that Betty had to turn it off so she didn’t have a heart attack from laughing,” he says. “And you could tell Mom knew she was bad. I mean, you could hear Betty laughing while she filmed, and my mom kept looking over her shoulder with this grin, but she didn’t stop singing. I guess I think about that a lot.”
“She sounds like my kind of lady,” I say.
“For most of my life,” he says, “she’s kind of felt like this boogeyman, you know? Like the biggest part she’s played in my life is just how wrecked my dad was from losing her. How scared he was to have to raise us on his own?”
I nod; makes sense.
“A lot of times, when I think about her, it’s like . . .” He pauses. “She’s more a cautionary tale than a person. But when I think about that video, I think about why my dad loved her so much. And that feels better. To think about her as a person.”
For a while, we’re quiet. I reach over and fold Alex’s hand in mine. “She must’ve been pretty amazing,” I say, “to make a person like you.”
He squeezes my hand but doesn’t say another word, and eventually I drift back to sleep.
The next two days are a blur, and then I’m on the rise. Not healthy but more awake, lighter, clearer headed.
There’s no more intense cuddling, just a lot of watching old cartoons together on the bed, sitting out on the fire escape in the morning while we eat breakfast, taking pills whenever the alarms go off on Alex’s phone, drinking tea on the sofa at night with a playlist of “traditional Norwegian folk music” playing in the background.
Four days pass. Then five. And then I’m doing well enough that I could theoretically leave the country, but it’s too late, and there’s no more talk of it. There’s no more touching either, except the occasional bump of the arm or leg, or the compulsive reach across the table to stop me from spilling on my chin. At night, though, when Alex is lying on the far side of my bed, I stay awake for hours listening to his uneven breath, feeling like we’re two magnets trying desperately to draw together.
I know deep down that it’s not a good idea. The fever lowered my defenses, and his too, but when it comes down to it, Alex and I are not for each other. There might be love and attraction and history, but that just means there’s more to lose if we try to take this friendship into a place it doesn’t belong.
Alex wants marriage and kids and a home in one place, and he wants it all with someone like Sarah. Someone who can help him build the life that he lost when he was six years old.
And I want a tetherless life of spontaneous trips and exciting new relationships, different seasons with different people, and quite possibly to never settle down. Our only hope of maintaining this relationship is through the platonic friendship we’ve always had. That five percent has been creeping up for years, but it’s time to tamp it back down. To squash the what-if.
At the end of the week, when I drop him off at the airport, I give him the most chaste hug I can muster, despite the way that his lifting me against him sends that same spine-arching shiver down my back and heat pooling in all the places he’s never touched me.
“I’ll miss you,” he says in a low growl against the side of my ear, and I force myself to step back a sensible distance.
I think about him all night, and when I dream, he’s pulling my thigh over his leg, rolling his hips against mine. Every time he’s about to kiss me, I wake up.
We don’t talk for four days, and when he finally texts me it’s just a picture of his tiny black cat sitting on an open copy of Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor.