“What am I going to do, Alex?” I ask him. “If I’m . . . What the hell am I supposed to do?”
He studies my face for a long time. “What do you want to do?”
I wipe at my eyes again. “I don’t think Trey wants to have kids.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Alex murmurs.
“I have no idea what I want,” I admit. “I mean, I want to be with him. And maybe someday . . . I don’t know. I don’t know.” I bury my face in my hands as a few more ugly, soundless sobs work out of me. “I’m not strong enough to do that on my own. I can’t. I couldn’t even handle being sick by myself, Alex. How am I supposed to . . .”
He takes my wrists gently and pulls them away from my face, ducking his head to peer into my eyes. “Poppy,” he says. “You won’t be alone, okay? I’m here.”
“So, what?” I say. “I’d, like, move to Indiana? Get an apartment next door to you and Sarah? How’s that going to work, Alex?”
“I don’t know,” he admits. “It doesn’t matter how. I’m here. Just go take the test, and then we’ll figure it out, okay? You’ll figure out what you want to do, and we’ll do it.”
I take a deep breath, nod, go inside with the bag of tests I’ve set down on the ground and the one I’m still gripping like a life raft.
I pee on three at once, then take them all back outside to wait. We line them up on the low stone wall surrounding the terrace. Alex sets a timer on his watch, and we stand there together, saying nothing until it beeps.
One by one the results come in.
I start to cry again. I’m not sure if it’s relief or something more complicated than that. Alex pulls me into his chest, rocks me soothingly side to side as I regain composure.
“I can’t keep doing this to you,” I say when I’m finally out of tears.
“Doing what?” he asks in a whisper.
“I don’t know. Needing you.”
He shakes his head against the side of mine. “I need you too, Poppy.” It’s then that I realize how thick and wet and trembling his voice is. When I pull back from him, I realize that he’s crying. I touch the side of his face. “Sorry,” he says, closing his eyes. “I just . . . I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”
And then I understand.
To someone like Alex, who lost his mother how he did, pregnancy isn’t just a life-changing possibility. It’s a potential death sentence.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “God, I don’t know why I’m crying.”
I pull his face down into my shoulder, and he cries some more, his huge shoulders heaving with it. In all the years we’ve been friends, he has probably seen me cry hundreds of times, but this is the first time he’s ever cried in front of me.
“It’s okay,” I whisper to him, and then, as many times as it takes, “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re okay, Alex.”
He buries his damp face in the side of my neck, his hands curling in tight against the small of my back as I run my fingers through his hair, his damp lips warm against my skin.
I know the feeling will pass, but right then I wish so badly that we were here alone. That we had yet to even meet Sarah and Trey. That we could hold on to each other as long and tight as I think we might need to.
We’ve always existed in a kind of world for two, but that’s not the case anymore.
“I’m sorry,” he says one last time as he unwinds himself from me, straightening up, looking out over the valley as the first rays of light splash across it. “I shouldn’t have . . .”
I touch his arm. “Please don’t say that.”
He nods, steps back, putting more distance between us, and I know, with every fiber of my being, that it’s the right thing to do, but it still hurts.
“Trey seems like a great guy,” he says.
“He is,” I promise.
Alex nods a few more times. “Good.” And that’s it. He leaves for his morning run, and I’m alone again on the still terrace, watching morning chase the shadows across the valley.
My period arrives twenty-five minutes later, while I’m scrambling eggs for breakfast, and the rest of our trip is a fantastically normal couples’ trip.
Except that, deep down, I am completely heartbroken.
It hurts to want it all, so many things that can’t coexist within the same life.
More than anything, though, I want Alex to be happy. To have everything he’s always wanted. I have to stop getting in the way, to give him the chance to have all of that.
We don’t so much as brush against each other until we hug goodbye. We never speak about what happened again.
I go on loving him.
SO I GUESS we’re not talking about what happened on Nikolai’s balcony, and that needs to be fine. When I wake up in our Technicolor hotel room of the Larrea Palm Springs, Alex’s bed is empty and made, and a handwritten note on the desk reads, RUNNING—BE BACK SOON. P.S. ALREADY PICKED UP THE CAR FROM THE SHOP.
It’s not like I expected a bunch of hugs and kisses and pledges of love, but he could’ve spared a Last night was great. Or maybe a cheery exclamation point.
Also, how is he running in this heat? There’s just a lot going on in that very short note and my paranoia helpfully suggests that he’s running to clear his head after what happened.
In Croatia, he’d freaked out. We both had. But that had happened at the tail end of the trip, when we could retreat to our separate corners of the country afterward. This time, we’ve got a bachelor party, rehearsal dinner, and wedding to get through.