Besides, the kind of university job Alex really wanted just didn’t come up very often these days. He couldn’t afford to lose his teaching job, and luckily he hadn’t.
SandwichES? PLURAL? I type back now. Please, please, please tell me you have become a full-fledged hoagie thief.
Delallo’s not a hoagie fan, Alex says. Lately she’s been hot for Reubens.
And how many of these Reubens have you stolen? I ask.
Assuming the NSA is reading this, none, he says.
You’re a high school English teacher in Ohio; of course they’re reading.
He sends back a sad face. Are you saying I’m not important enough for the U.S. government to monitor?
I know he’s joking, but here’s the thing about Alex Nilsen. Despite being tall, fairly broad, addicted to daily exercise and healthy eating and general self-control, he also has this hurt puppy face. Or at least the ability to summon it. His eyes are always a little sleepy, the creases beneath them a constant indication that he doesn’t love sleep the way I do. His mouth is full with an exaggerated, slightly uneven cupid’s bow, and all of this combined with his straight, messy hair—the one part of his appearance he pays no attention to—gives his face a boyishness that, when wielded properly, can trigger some biological impulse in me to protect him at all costs.
Seeing his sleepy eyes go big and watery and his full mouth open into a soft O is like hearing a puppy whimpering.
When other people send the frowny emoji, I read it as mild disappointment.
When Alex uses it, I know it’s the digital equivalent of him pulling Sad Puppy Face to tease me. Sometimes, when we were drunk, sitting at a table and trying to make it through a game of chess or Scrabble that I was winning, he’d deploy the face until I was hysterical, caught between laughing and crying, falling out of my chair, trying to make him stop or at least cover his face.
Of course you’re important, I type. If the NSA knew the powers of Sad Puppy Face, you’d be in a lab getting cloned right now.
Alex types for a minute, stops, types again. I wait a few more seconds.
Is this it? The message he finally stops responding to? Some big confrontation? Or, knowing him, I guess it’s more likely to be an inoffensive Nice talking but I’m headed to bed. Sleep well.
A laugh breaks out of me, the force of it like an egg cracking in my chest, spilling out warmth to coat my nerves.
It’s a photo. A blurry, ineffectual selfie of Alex, under a streetlight, making the infamous face. As with nearly every picture he’s ever taken, it’s shot slightly from below, elongating his head so it comes to a point. I throw my head back with another laugh, half-giddy.
You bastard! I type. It’s one a.m. and now you’ve got me headed to the pound to save some lives.
Yeah right, he says. You’d never get a dog.
Something like hurt pinches low in my stomach. Despite being the cleanest, most particular, most organized man I know, Alex loves animals, and I’m fairly sure he sees my inability to commit to one as a personal defect.
I look up at the lone dehydrated succulent in the corner of the balcony. Shaking my head, I type out another message: How’s Flannery O’Connor?
Dead, Alex writes back.
The cat, not the author! I say.
Also dead, he replies.
My heart stutters. As much as I loathed that cat (no more or less than she loathed me), Alex adored her. The fact that he didn’t tell me she died slices through me in one clean cut, a guillotine blade from head to foot.
Alex, I’m so sorry, I write. God, I’m sorry. I know how much you loved her. That cat had an amazing life.
He writes only, Thanks.
I stare at the word for a long time, unsure where to go from there. Four minutes pass, then five, then it’s been ten.
I should get to bed now, he says finally. Sleep well, Poppy.
Yeah, I write. You too.
I sit on the balcony until all the warmth has drained out of me.
Twelve Summers Ago
THE FIRST NIGHT of orientation at the University of Chicago, I spot him. He’s dressed in khaki pants and a U of Chicago T-shirt, despite having been at this school for all of ten hours. He looks nothing like the sort of artistic intelligentsia I imagined befriending when I chose a school in the city. But I’m here alone (my new roommate, it turns out, followed her older sister and some friends to college, and she ducked out of O-Week events ASAP), and he’s alone too, so I walk up to him, tip my drink toward his shirt, and say, “So, do you go to University of Chicago?”
He stares at me blankly.
I stammer out that it was a joke.
He stammers something about spilling on his shirt and a last-minute outfit change. His cheeks go pink, and mine do too, from secondhand embarrassment.
And then his eyes dip down me, sizing me up, and his face changes. I’m wearing a neon orange and pink floral jumpsuit from the early seventies, and he reacts to this fact as if I’m also holding a poster that says FUCK KHAKIS on it.
I ask him where he’s from, because I’m not sure what else to say to a stranger with whom I have no shared context apart from a few hours of confusing campus tours, a couple of the same boring panels on life in the city, and the fact that we hate each other’s clothes.
“Ohio,” he answers, “a town called West Linfield.”
“No shit!” I say, stunned. “I’m from East Linfield.”
And he brightens a little, like this is good news, and I’m not sure why, because having the fact of the Linfields in common is sort of like having had the same cold: not the worst thing in the world, but nothing to high-five over.
“I’m Poppy,” I tell him.
“Alex,” he says, and shakes my hand.