Rest + Relaxation magazine doesn’t specialize in shoestring-budget travel. And though I’d planned to keep up Pop Around the World in addition to my magazine work, my entries petered off not long after the Croatia trip.
I scroll back to my post about that one and open it. I was already working at R+R by then, which meant every luxurious second of the trip was paid for. It was supposed to be the best one we’d ever taken, and small slivers of it were.
But rereading my post—even with every hint of Alex and what happened scrubbed out of it—it’s obvious how miserable I was when I got home. I scroll further back, scouring for every post about the Summer Trip. That was what we called it, when we texted about it throughout the year, usually long before we’d nailed down where we would go or how we’d afford it.
The Summer Trip.
As in, School is killing me—I just want the Summer Trip to be here already, and Pitch for our Summer Trip Uniform, with an attached screenshot of a T-shirt that says YEP, THEY’RE REAL on the chest, or a pair of overall shorts so short as to be, essentially, a denim thong.
A hot breeze blows the smell of garbage and dollar-slice pizza up off the street, ruffling my hair. I twist it into a knot at the base of my neck, then shut my computer and pull out my phone so fast you’d think I actually planned to use it.
You can’t. It’s too weird, I think.
But I’m already pulling up Alex’s number, still there at the top of my favorites list, where optimism kept him saved until so much time had passed that the possibility of deleting him now seems like a tragic last step I can’t bear to take.
My thumb hovers over the keyboard.
Been thinking about you, I type. I stare at it for a minute, then backspace to the beginning.
Any chance you’re looking to get out of town? I write. That seems good. It’s clear what I’m asking, but pretty casual, with an easy out. But the longer I study the words, the weirder I feel about being so casual. About pretending nothing happened and the two of us are still close friends who can plan a trip in such an informal forum as a postmidnight text.
I delete the message, take a deep breath, and type again: Hey.
“Hey?” I snap, annoyed with myself. Down on the sidewalk, a man jumps in surprise at the sound of my voice, then looks up at my balcony, decides I’m not talking to him, and hurries off.
There’s no way I’m going to send a message to Alex Nilsen that just says Hey.
But then I go to highlight and delete the word, and something horrible happens.
I accidentally hit send.
The message whooshes out.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I hiss, shaking my phone like maybe I can make it spit the text back up before that measly word starts to digest. “No, no, n—”
I freeze. Mouth open. Heart racing. Stomach twisting until my intestines feel like rotini noodles.
A new message, the name bolded at the top: ALEXANDER THE GREATEST.
I’m so stunned that I almost just text Hey back, like my whole first message never happened, like he just hey’d me out of the blue. But of course he didn’t—he’s not that guy. I’m that guy.
And because I’m that guy, who sends the worst text message in the world, I’ve now gotten a reply that gives me no natural inroad to a conversation.
What do I say?
Does How are you? sound too serious? Does that make it seem like I’m expecting him to say, Well, Poppy, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you BAD.
Maybe something more innocuous, like What’s up?
But again I feel like the weirdest thing I could do right now is willfully ignore that it is weird to be texting him after all this time.
I’m sorry I sent you a text message that said hey, I write out. I erase it, try for funny: You’re probably wondering why I’ve brought you here.
Not funny, but I’m standing at the edge of my tiny balcony, actually shivering with nervous anticipation and terrified to wait too long to respond. I send the message and start to pace. Only, because the balcony’s so tiny and the chair takes up half of it, I’m basically just spinning like a top, a tail of moths chasing the blurry light of my phone.
It chimes again, and I snap down into the chair and open the message.
Is this about the disappearing sandwiches in the break room?
A moment later, a second message comes in.
Because I didn’t take those. Unless there’s a security camera in there. In which case, I’m sorry.
A smile blooms across my face, a flood of warmth melting the anxious knot in my chest. There was a brief period of time when Alex was convinced he was going to get fired from his teaching job. After waking up late and missing breakfast, he’d had a doctor’s appointment over lunch. He hadn’t had time to grab food after, so he’d gone to the teachers’ lounge, hoping it was someone’s birthday, that there might be donuts or stale muffins he could pick over.
But it was the first Monday of the month, and an American History teacher named Ms. Delallo, a woman Alex secretly considered his workplace nemesis, insisted on cleaning out the fridge and counter space on the last Friday of every month—and then making a big deal about it like she expected to be thanked, though oftentimes her coworkers lost a couple of perfectly good frozen lunches in the process.
Anyway, the only thing left in the fridge was a tuna salad sandwich. “Delallo’s calling card,” Alex had joked when he recounted the story to me later.
He’d eaten the sandwich as an act of defiance (and hunger). Then spent three weeks convinced someone was going to find out and he’d lose his job. It’s not like it was his dream to teach high school literature, but the job paid okay, had good benefits, and was in our hometown back in Ohio, which—though to me, a definite negative—meant he got to be close to two of his three younger brothers and the children they’d started churning out.