“Woooow,” I say as we walk inside. “This is the sexiest place I’ve ever been.”
“Nikolai’s fumigation-tent balcony is deeply offended,” Alex says.
“That fumigation tent will always be in my heart,” I promise, and squeeze his hand, which emphasizes our size difference in a way that makes my spine tingle. “Hey, do you remember when I melted down about having slow loris hands? In Colorado? After I rolled my ankle?”
“Poppy,” he says pointedly, “I remember everything.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “But you said—”
He sighs. “I know what I said. But I’m telling you now, I remember it all.”
“Some would say that makes you a liar.”
“No,” he says, “what it makes me is someone who was embarrassed to still remember exactly what you were wearing the first time I saw you, and what you ordered once at McDonald’s in Tennessee, and who needed to preserve some small measure of dignity.”
“Aw, Alex,” I coo, teasing even as my heart flutters happily. “You forfeited your dignity when you showed up to O-Week in khakis.”
“Hey!” he says, tone chiding. “Don’t forget that you love me.”
My cheeks flush warm without any hint of embarrassment. “I could never forget that.”
I love him, and he remembers everything, because he loves me too. My insides feel like an explosion of gold confetti.
Someone calls from the far side of the restaurant then. “Is that Miss Poppy Wright?”
Mr. Nilsen strides toward us in a baggy gray suit, his blond mustache the exact size and shape as the day I met him. Alex’s hand frees itself from mine. For whatever reason, he obviously does not want to hold my hand in front of his father, and I feel a rush of happiness that he felt comfortable doing what he needed to.
“Hi, Mr. Nilsen!” I say, and he stops abruptly a few feet in front of me, kindly smiling and definitely not planning to hug me. He’s wearing a comically large rainbow pin on his lapel. It looks like, with one wrong move, it could tip him over.
“Oh, please,” he says. “You’re not a kid anymore. You can call me Ed.”
“What the hell, you can call me Ed too,” I say.
“Uh,” he says.
“She’s joking,” Alex supplies.
“Oh,” Ed Nilsen says uncertainly. Alex goes red. I go red.
Now is not the time to embarrass him. “I was so sorry to hear about Betty,” I recover. “She was an amazing woman.”
His shoulders slump. “She was a rock to our family,” he says. “Just like her daughter.” At that, he starts to tear up, pulls off his wire-frame glasses, and blows a breath out as he wipes at his eyes. “Not sure how we’re going to get by without her this weekend.”
And I feel sympathy for him, of course. He’s lost someone he loved. Again.
But so have his sons, and standing here with him, while he tears up freely, grieves like every person deserves to, there’s also something like anger building up in me.
Because next to me, Alex ironed out all his own emotion as soon as he saw his father approaching, and I know that’s no coincidence.
I don’t mean to say it aloud, but that’s how it comes out, with the subtlety of a battering ram: “But you will get through it. Because your son’s getting married, and he needs you.”
Ed Nilsen gives me an unironic Sad Puppy Face. “Well, of course,” he says, sounding mildly stunned. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to . . .” He never finishes the sentence, just looks at Alex with a rather blank confusion and squeezes his son’s shoulder before drifting away.
Beside me, Alex lets out an anxious breath, and I wheel toward him. “I’m sorry! I just made that weird. Sorry.”
“No.” He slips his hand back into mine. “Actually, I think I just developed a fetish that’s specifically you delivering hard truths to my father.”
“In that case,” I say, “let’s go have some words with him about that mustache.”
I start to walk away, and Alex pulls me back to him, his hands light on my waist, voice low beside my ear. “In case I don’t kiss you as pornographically as I want to for the rest of the night, please know that after this trip, I’ll be investing in therapy to understand why I feel incapable of expressing happiness in front of my family.”
“And thus my fetish of Alex Nilsen Exhibiting Self-Care was born,” I say, and he sneaks a quick kiss on the side of my head.
Just then, a wash of squeals and shrieks floats through the front doors of the bistro, and Alex steps back from me. “And that will be the nieces and nephew.”
BRYCE’S KIDS ARE six and four years old, both girls, and Cameron’s son is just over two. Tham’s sister has a six-year-old daughter too, and together, the four of them run wild through the restaurant, giggles ricocheting off the chandeliers.
Alex is happy to chase after them, to fling himself onto the floor when they try to knock him over, and to hoist them, happily shrieking, into the air when he catches them.
He is the Alex I know with them, funny and open and playful, and even if I’m not sure how to interact with kids, when he pulls me into the game, I try my best.
“We’re princesses,” Tham’s niece, Kat, tells me, taking my hand. “But we’re also warriors so we have to kill the dragon!”
“And Uncle Alex is the dragon?” I confirm, and she nods, wide-eyed and solemn.
“But we don’t have to kill him,” she explains breathlessly. “If we can tame him, he can be our pet.”