Alex looks miserable. “I just mean . . .”
“I get it,” I say quickly, trying to patch the hole before the boat can take on more water. It was a mistake to go there, to risk this. But I need to convince him everything’s fine, that we didn’t just pour gasoline onto our friendship and light a match. “Let’s not make this a big deal—it’s not,” I go on, my conviction building. “It’s like you said: we each had, like, three bottles of wine. We weren’t thinking clearly. We’ll pretend it never happened, okay?”
He stares at me hard, a tense expression I can’t quite read. “You think you can do that?”
“Alex, of course,” I say. “We’ve got way more history than just one drunken night.”
“Okay.” He nods. “Okay.” After a beat of silence, he says, “I should get to bed.” He studies me for another beat, then mumbles, “Good night,” and slips out the door.
After a few minutes of mortified pacing, I drag myself to bed, where every time I start drifting off, the whole encounter plays over in my mind: the unbearable excitement of kissing him and the even more unbearable humiliation of our conversation.
In the morning, when I wake, there’s one blissful moment when I think I dreamed the whole thing. Then I stumble to the bathroom mirror and see a good old-fashioned hickey on my neck, and the cycle of memories starts anew.
I decide not to bring it up when I see him. The best thing I can do is pretend to truly have forgotten what happened. To prove I’m okay and nothing has to change between us.
When we get to the airport—Bernard, Alex, and I—and Bernard wanders off to use the bathroom, we have our first minute alone of the day.
Alex coughs. “I’m sorry about last night. I know I started it all and—it shouldn’t have happened like that.”
“Seriously,” I say. “It’s not a big deal.”
“I know you’re not over Trey,” he murmurs, looking away. “I shouldn’t have . . .”
Would it make things better or worse to admit how little Trey crossed my mind for weeks before this trip? That last night I hadn’t been thinking about anyone but Alex?
“It’s not your fault,” I promise. “We both let it happen, and it doesn’t have to mean anything, Alex. We’re just two friends who kissed once while drunk.”
He studies me for a few seconds. “All right.” He doesn’t look like he’s all right. He looks like he’d rather be at a saxophone convention with any number of serial killers right now.
My heart squeezes painfully. “So we’re good?” I say, willing it to be so.
Bernard reappears then with a story about a heavily toilet-papered airport bathroom he once visited—on the Sunday of Mother’s Day, for those who want the exact date—and Alex and I barely look at each other.
When I get home, something keeps me from texting him.
He’ll text me, I think. Then I’ll know we’re okay.
After a week of silence, I send him a casual text about a funny T-shirt I see on the subway, and he writes back ha but nothing else. Two weeks later, when I ask, Are you okay? he just replies, Sorry. Been really busy. You okay?
For sure, I say.
Alex stays busy. I get busy too, and that’s it.
I always knew there was a reason we kept a boundary up. We’d let our libidos get the best of us and now he couldn’t even look at me, text me back.
Ten years of friendship flushed down the drain just so I could know what Alex Nilsen tastes like.
I CAN’T STOP THINKING about that first kiss. Not our first kiss on Nikolai’s balcony but the one two years ago, in Croatia. All this time, that memory has looked one way in my mind, but now it looks entirely different.
I’d thought he regretted what happened. Now I understood he regretted how it happened. On a drunk whim, when he couldn’t be sure of my intentions. When I wasn’t sure of my intentions. He’d been afraid it hadn’t meant anything, and then I’d pretended it hadn’t.
All this time I’d thought he’d rejected me. And he’d thought I’d been cavalier with him and his heart. It made me ache to think of how I’d hurt him, and worst of all, maybe he was right.
Because even if that kiss hadn’t meant nothing to me, I also hadn’t thought it through. Not the first time, and not this time either. Not like Alex had.
“Poppy?” Swapna says, leaning around my cubicle. “Do you have a moment?”
I’ve been at my desk, staring at this website for tourism in Siberia, for upwards of forty-five minutes. Turns out Siberia is actually sort of beautiful. Perfect for a self-imposed exile if one should have need of such a thing. I minimize the site. “Um, sure.”
Swapna glances over her shoulder, checking who else is in today, parked at their desks. “Actually, are you up for a walk?”
It’s been two weeks since I got back from Palm Springs, and it’s technically too early for fall weather, but we’ve got a random pop of it today in New York. Swapna grabs her Burberry trench and I grab my vintage herringbone one and we set off toward the coffee shop on the corner.
“So,” she says. “I can’t help but notice you’ve been in a funk.”
“Oh.” I thought I’d been doing an okay job hiding how I was feeling. For one thing, I’ve been exercising for, like, four hours a night, which means I sleep like a baby, wake up still exhausted, and trudge through my days without too much brainpower left for wondering when Alex might answer one of my phone calls or call me back.
Or why this job feels as tiring as bartending back in Ohio did. I can’t make anything add up how it should anymore. All day long, I hear myself saying this same phrase, like I’m desperate to get it out of my body even as I feel incapable: I am having a hard time.