“Wow, okay,” Sarah says when we walk in. “I’m never missing one of these trips again.”
I flash Alex a look that’s the facial equivalent of a thumbs-up, and he smiles faintly back.
“I know, right?” Trey says. “We should’ve thought to take a group trip sooner.”
“Definitely,” Sarah says, though obviously with her schedule at a high school and Alex’s teaching course load at the university, it’s not like they’ve got much time to jet-set around, even for steeply discounted Tuscan villas.
“There are, like, ten Michelin-starred restaurants within twenty miles of here—and I figured Alex would want to cook one night at least.”
“That’d be amazing,” Alex agrees.
Sure, it’s a little stiff and awkward that first day at the villa, as the four of us meander around between jet-lagged naps in our rooms and quick dips in the pool. Trey shoots some test photos, and I go into town to grab snacks: aged cheeses and meats, fresh bread, and a variety of jams in tiny jars. And wine, plenty of wine.
By the end of the first night sitting outside on the terrace, and drinking the first two bottles of wine, everyone has softened, loosened. Sarah’s become downright chatty, telling stories about her students, about Flannery O’Connor and life in Indiana, and Alex offers quiet, dry asides that make me laugh so hard wine spews out of my nose, twice.
It feels like the four of us are friends, real friends.
When Trey pulls me into his lap and rests his chin on my shoulder, Sarah touches her chest and awws. “You two are so sweet,” she says, looking to Alex. “Aren’t they sweet?”
“And buttery,” Alex says, just barely glancing my way.
“What?” Sarah says. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He shrugs, and she goes on: “I wish Alex liked PDA. We barely even hug in public.”
“I’m not a big hugger,” Alex says, embarrassed. “I didn’t grow up hugging.”
“Yeah, but it’s me,” Sarah says. “I’m not some girl you met at a bar, babe.”
Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I’ve seen him and Sarah touch. But it’s not like he’s touched me all that much in public either, unless you count dancing in the streets of New Orleans, or that time in Vail (and there was a fair amount of alcohol involved in both).
“It just feels . . . rude or something,” Alex tries to explain.
“Rude?” Trey lights a cigarette. “We’re all adults, man. Hold on to your girl if you want.”
Sarah snorts. “Don’t bother. This has been a years-long conversation. I’ve accepted my lot. I’m going to marry a man who hates holding hands.”
My chest jolts at the word marry. Is it really that serious between them? I mean, obviously it’s serious, but they haven’t been back together that long. Trey and I talk about marriage occasionally, but in a lofty, far-off, maybe-who-knows-let’s-not-put-pressure-on-this way.
“Now, that I can understand,” Trey says, blowing his cigarette smoke away from us. “Hand-holding sucks. It’s not comfortable, and it limits movement, and in a crowd it’s inconvenient. Like, you might as well just handcuff your ankles together.”
“Not to mention your hands get all sweaty,” Alex says. “It’s all-around uncomfortable.”
“I love holding hands!” I chime in, tucking the word marry deep inside my brain to puzzle over later. “Especially in a crowd. It makes me feel safe.”
“Well, it looks like if we go into Florence before this trip is over,” Sarah says, “it’s gonna be me and Poppy holding hands, and you two lone wolves getting utterly lost in the masses.”
Sarah holds her wineglass out to me and I clink mine to hers, and we both laugh, and that might be the first moment that I like her. That I realize maybe I could’ve liked her all along, if I hadn’t been holding so tight to Alex that there was no room for her.
I have to stop doing that. I decide I will, and from then on, the wine takes over, and all four of us are talking, joking, laughing, and this night sets the tone for the rest of the trip.
Long, sunny days wandering every old town spread out around us. Driving to vineyards and swirling glasses of wine with our mouths held ajar to inhale their deep, fruity scent. Late lunches in ancient stone buildings with world-renowned chefs. Alex leaving bright and early each morning to run, Trey dipping out not much later to scout locations or capture photos he’s already planned. Sarah and I sleeping in most days, then meeting for a long swim (or to float on rafts with plastic cups full of limoncello and vodka), talking about nothing too important but with far more ease than that day at Linfield’s lone Mediterranean restaurant.
At night, we go out for late dinners—and wine—then come back to our villa’s patio and talk and drink until it’s nearly morning.
We play every game we recognize from the closet full of them. Lawn games like bocce and badminton, and board games like Clue and Scrabble and Monopoly (which I happen to know Alex hates, though he doesn’t admit that when Trey suggests we play).
We stay up later and later each night. We scribble celebrities’ names onto pieces of paper, mix them up, and stick them to our foreheads for a game of twenty questions in which we guess who’s on our heads, with the added obstacle of every question asked requiring another drink.
It quickly becomes obvious that none of us has the same celebrity references, which makes the game two hundred times harder, but also funnier. When I ask if my celebrity is a reality TV star, Sarah pretends to gag.
“Really?” I say. “I love reality TV.”
It’s not like I’m unused to this reaction. But part of me feels like her disapproval equals Alex’s disapproval, and a sore spot appears along with an urge to press on it.
“I don’t know how you can watch that stuff,” Sarah says.