It was three years ago, but I still see it so vividly: Alex and me out on the terrace minutes before the sun rose, my arms crossed tight, nails bitten to the quick. Pregnancy tests lined up on the stone wall and Alex’s watch chirping at us that it was time to find out what the future held.
The way he’d broken down once I finally gathered myself, hunched his head, and cried against me.
I can’t keep doing this to you, I’d said. Needing you.
He’d told me he needed me too, but with Trey and Sarah there, the bubble that always seemed to envelop us, separate us from the world, had popped, and I’d felt so deeply ashamed for wanting so much of him, and I could tell he had too.
Trey seems like a great guy, he’d said, and that was as close to saying We have to stop this as we could get. Saying that would’ve been an admission of guilt. Even if we never kissed, never said the words outright, we were keeping whole parts of our hearts for each other only.
Alex had wanted to marry Sarah, and I know now that I’d kept him from being able to. She’d broken up with him a second time after Tuscany, and even if she never knew exactly what had transpired, I was sure it had left a mark on him, shifted things between them for the worse.
If I had been pregnant, if I’d decided to have the baby, I know beyond any doubt Alex would have been there for me, given up anything he had just to help.
Sarah, like always, would’ve had to deal with the reality of me or move on. I can’t help but wonder if I’d forced her to that point. If our friendship had cost him the woman he wanted to marry. I feel sick, ashamed by the thought. Guilty over how I ignored my more complicated feelings for him so I could justify staying in his life.
It’s one thing when your boyfriend’s rowdy brothers, or his widower father, need him.
But I was just some other woman, whose needs he’d always put first to the detriment of his own wants and happiness. And this week, I’d stumbled into this selfishly, because that was my default with him. To ask for what I wanted, to let him give it to me even if it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for him.
I’m no longer giddy or buzzy or anything but sick to my stomach.
David sets his hand on my shoulder and smiles at me, jarring me out of the kaleidoscope of complicated, painful feelings pinwheeling through me. “I’m glad he has you now.”
“Yeah,” I whisper, but a vicious little voice inside me says, No, you have him.
AS I’M DIGGING through my purse for the hotel key, Alex leans into me, his hands heavy on my waist, his lips soft against the side of my neck, and it would be unwinding me if not for the buzzing in my skull, the steady throbs of alternating guilt and panic low in my stomach.
I press the keycard to the lock, then nudge the door open, and Alex releases me, stepping into the room after me. I beeline for the sink, slipping the backs off my oversized plastic earrings and setting them on the counter. Alex goes still and anxious just inside the door.
“Did I do something?” he asks.
I shake my head, grab a cotton swab and the blue bottle of eye makeup remover. I know I need to say something, but I don’t want to cry, because if I cry, this becomes about me, and the whole point of it is lost. Alex will bend over backward to make me feel safe, when really what I need is for him to be honest. I swipe the cotton over my lids, loosening the black liquid eyeliner until I look like Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, gunpowder smeared across my face like war paint.
“Poppy,” Alex says. “Just tell me what I did.”
I spin toward him, and he doesn’t even crack a smile about my makeup. That’s how worried he is, and I hate myself for making him feel like that. “You didn’t do anything,” I say. “You’re perfect.”
His two expressions now are surprised and offended. “I’m not perfect.”
I need to do this quick, rip it off like a Band-Aid. “Were you going to propose to Sarah?”
His lips part. But his shock quickly melts into hurt. “What are you talking about?”
“I just . . .” I close my eyes, press the back of my hand to my head as if that can stop the buzzing. I open my eyes again and his expression has barely shrunk. He’s not reeling in his emotions: I’m going to get Naked Alex for this conversation. “David said you had a ring.”
He jams his mouth shut and swallows hard, looks toward the sliding balcony doors, then back to me. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“It’s not that.” I force the rising tears back down. “I just . . . I didn’t realize how much you loved her.”
He half laughs, but there’s no humor in his tense face. “Of course I loved her. I was with her on and off for years, Poppy. You loved the guys you were with too.”
“I know. I’m not accusing you of anything. Just . . .” I shake my head, trying to organize my thoughts into something shorter than an hour-long monologue. “I mean, you bought a ring.”
“I know that,” he says, “but why are you mad at me for that, Poppy? You were with Trey, fucking jet-setting around the world, sitting in his lap in all four corners of the world—was I supposed to think you weren’t happy? To just wait for you?”
“I’m not mad at you, Alex!” I cry. “I’m mad at myself! For not caring that I was getting in the way. For asking so much of you and—and keeping you from what you want.”
He scoffs. “What is it I want?”
“Why did she break up with you?” I bite back. “Tell me it had nothing to do with me. That Sarah didn’t end things because of this—this thing between us. That since I’ve been out of your life, she hasn’t been reconsidering everything. Just tell me that, if that’s the truth, Alex. Tell me I’m not the reason you’re not married with kids right now, and everything else you wanted.”