“How do you think this article is going to go over with Swapna? Gardens that close in the middle of the day, and carousels so hot they’re unsafe to ride?”
“Oh. Right.” I cough. I’m less embarrassed that I lied to Alex about this trip than at the fact that I forgot to mention it until now, and am forced to use several of our last precious moments together explaining it. “So R+R might not have technically approved this trip.”
He arches an eyebrow. “Might not have?”
“Or might have outright rejected it.”
“What, seriously? Then why were they paying for—” He cuts himself short as he reads the answer on my face. “Poppy. You shouldn’t have done that. Or you should have told me.”
“Would you have taken this trip if you knew I was paying for it?”
“Of course not,” he says.
“Exactly,” I say. “And I needed to talk to you. I mean, obviously we needed to talk.”
“You could have called me,” he reasons. “We were texting again. We were . . . I don’t know, working on it.”
“I know,” I say. “But it wasn’t that simple. I was having a hard time at work, just feeling over the whole thing, and lost and bored, and like—like I don’t even know what I want next in my life, and then I talked to Rachel, and she pointed out that I’d sort of . . . gotten everything I wanted professionally, and maybe I just needed to find something new to want, and then I thought back to when I was last happy and—”
“What are you talking about?” Alex says, shaking his head. “Rachel told you to . . . trick me into going on a trip with you?”
“No!” I say, panic wriggling in my gut. How is this going off the rails so quickly? “Not that! Her mom’s a therapist, and according to her, it’s common to be depressed when you’ve met all your long-term goals. Because we need purpose. And then Rachel suggested maybe I just needed to take a break from life and let myself figure out what I want.”
“A break from life,” Alex says quietly, his mouth going slack, his eyes dark and stormy.
It’s immediately obvious that I’ve said the wrong thing. This is all coming out so wrong. I have to fix it. “I just mean, I hadn’t really been happy since our last trip.”
“So you lied to me so I’d take a trip with you, and then you had sex with me, and you told me you loved me and came to my brother’s wedding, because you needed a break from your real life.”
“Alex, of course not,” I say, reaching for him.
He steps back from me, eyes low. “Please don’t touch me right now, Poppy. I’m trying to think, okay?”
“Think about what?” I ask, emotion thickening my voice. I don’t understand what’s happening, how I’ve hurt him or how to fix it. “Why are you so upset right now?”
“Because I meant it!” he says, finally meeting my eyes.
A pulse of pain shoots through my stomach. “So did I!” I cry.
“I meant it, and I knew I meant it,” he says. “It wasn’t an impulse. I knew for years that I loved you, and I thought about it from every single angle and knew what I wanted before I ever kissed you. We went two years without talking, and I thought about you every day and I gave you the space I thought you wanted, and that whole time I asked myself what I’d be willing to do, to give up, if you decided you wanted to be with me too. I spent that whole time alternating between trying to move on and let you go, so you could be happy, and looking at job postings and apartments near you, just in case.”
“Alex.” I shake my head, force the words past the knot in my throat. “I had no idea.”
“I know.” He rubs at his forehead as he closes his eyes. “I know that. And maybe I should have told you. But, fuck, Poppy, I’m not some water taxi driver you met on vacation.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demand. When he opens his eyes, they’re so teary I start to reach for him again until I remember what he said: please don’t touch me right now.
“I’m not a vacation from your real life,” he says. “I’m not a novelty experience. I’m someone who’s been in love with you for a decade, and you should never have kissed me if you didn’t know that you wanted this, all the way. It wasn’t fair.”
“I want this,” I say, but even as I say it, a part of me has no idea what that means.
Do I want marriage?
Do I want to have kids?
Do I want to live in a seventies quad-level in Linfield, Ohio?
Do I want any of the things that Alex craves for his life?
I haven’t thought any of that through, and Alex can tell.
“You don’t know that,” Alex says. “You just said you don’t know, Poppy. I can’t leave my job and my house and my family just to see if that cures your boredom.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that, Alex,” I say, feeling desperate, like I’m grappling for purchase and realizing everything under me is made of sand. He’s slipping through my grip for the last time, and there will be no packing this all back into form.
“I know,” he says, rubbing the lines in his forehead, wincing. “God, I know that. It’s my fault. I should’ve known this was a bad idea.”
“Stop,” I say, wanting so badly to touch him, aching at having to settle for clenching my hands into fists. “Don’t say that. I’m figuring things out, okay? I just . . . I need to figure some things out.”
The gate agent calls for group six to start boarding and the last few stragglers line up.
“I have to go,” he says, without looking at me.
My eyes cloud up with tears, my skin hot and itchy like my body’s shrinking around my bones, becoming too tight to bear. “I love you, Alex,” I get out. “Doesn’t that matter?”