His eyes cut toward me, dark, fathomless, full of hurt and want. “I love you too, Poppy,” he says. “That’s never been our problem.” He glances over his shoulder. The line has almost disappeared.
“We can talk about this when we’re home,” I say. “We can figure it out.”
When Alex looks back at me, his face is anguished, his eyes red ringed. “Look,” he says gently. “I don’t think we should talk for a while.”
I shake my head. “That’s the last thing we should do, Alex. We have to figure this out.”
“Poppy.” He reaches for my hand, takes it lightly in his. “I know what I want. You need to figure this out. I’d do anything for you, but—please don’t ask me to if you’re not sure. I really—” He swallows hard. The line is gone. It’s time for him to go. He forces out the rest in a hoarse murmur. “I can’t be a break from your real life, and I won’t be the thing that keeps you from having what you want.”
His name catches in my throat. He bends a little, resting his forehead against mine, and I close my eyes. When I open them, he’s walking onto the jet bridge without looking back.
I take a deep breath, gather up my things, and head to my gate.
When I sit down to wait and pull my knees into my chest, hiding my face against them, I finally let myself cry freely.
For the first time in my life, the airport strikes me as the loneliest place in the world.
All those people, parting ways, going off in their own directions, crossing paths with hundreds of people but never connecting.
Two Summers Ago
AN OLDER GENTLEMAN travels with us to Croatia as the official R+R photographer.
Bernard. He’s a loud talker, always wearing a fleece vest, often standing between Alex and me without noticing the funny looks we exchange over Bernard’s bald head. (He’s shorter than me, though throughout the trip, he often tells us he was five six back in his prime.)
Together, the three of us see the ancient city of Dubrovnik, Old Town, with its high stone walls and winding streets, and further out, the rocky beaches and pristine turquoise water of the Adriatic.
The other photographers I’ve traveled with have all been fairly independent, but Bernard’s a recent widower, unused to living alone. He’s a nice guy, but endlessly social and talkative, and throughout our time in the city, I watch him wear Alex down, until all Bernard’s questions are answered in monosyllables. Bernard doesn’t notice; usually his questions are mere springboards for stories he’d like to share.
The stories involve a lot of names and dates, and he takes plenty of time ensuring he’s getting each right, sometimes going back and forth four or five times until he’s positive this event happened on a Wednesday and not, as he first thought, a Thursday.
From the city, we take a crammed ferry to Korčula, an island off the coast. R+R has booked us two apartment-style hotel rooms overlooking the water. Somehow Bernard gets it in his head that he and Alex will be sharing one of these, which makes no sense since he is an R+R employee, who should obviously get his own accommodations, while Alex is my guest.
We try to tell him this.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he says. “Besides, I got two bedrooms by accident.”
It’s a lost cause trying to convince him that that room was supposed to be Alex’s and mine, thus the two bedrooms, and honestly, I think we both feel too much sympathy for Bernard to push the matter. The apartments themselves are sleek and modern, all whites and stainless steels with balconies overlooking the glittering water, but the walls are paper-thin, and I wake every morning to the sounds of three tiny children running around and screaming in the apartment above mine. Furthermore, something has died in the wall behind the dryer in the laundry closet, and every day that I call down to the desk to tell them this, they send up a teenage boy to do something about the smell while I’m out. I’m fairly sure he just opens all the windows and sprays Lysol all over the place, because the sweet lemony scent I return to fades each night as the dead animal smell swells back to replace it.
I expected this to be the best vacation of any we’ve ever taken.
But even aside from the death smell and the shrieking-at-dawn babies, there’s the fact of Bernard. After Tuscany, without talking about it, Alex and I both took a step back from our friendship. Instead of daily texts, we started catching up every couple weeks. It would’ve been too easy to go back to how things were then, but I couldn’t do that, to him or to Trey.
Instead I threw myself into work, taking every trip that came up, sometimes back to back. At first Trey and I were happier than ever—this was where we thrived: on horseback and camelback, hiking volcanoes and cliff-jumping off waterfalls. But eventually our never-ending vacation started to feel like running, like we were two bank robbers making the best of a bad situation while we waited for the FBI to close in.
We started arguing. He’d want to get up early, and I’d oversleep. I was walking too slowly, and he was laughing too loud. I was annoyed by how he flirted with our waitress, and he couldn’t stand how I had to browse every aisle of every identical shop we passed.
We had a week left of a trip to New Zealand when we realized we’d run our course.
“We’re just not having fun anymore,” Trey said.
I started laughing from relief. We parted ways as friends. I didn’t cry. The last six months had been a slow unbraiding of our lives. The breakup was just the snip of one last string.
When I texted Alex to tell him, he said, What happened? Are you okay?
It’ll be easier to explain in person, I wrote, heart trilling.
Fair enough, he said.
A few weeks later, also over text, he told me that he and Sarah had broken up again.
I hadn’t seen that coming: They’d moved to Linfield together when he’d finished his doctorate, were even working at the same school—a miracle so profound it seemed like the universe’s express approval of their relationship—and from everything Alex had told me, they’d been better than ever. Happier. It was all so natural for them. Unless he was keeping their issues private, which would make perfect sense.