“Please,” she says. “You’re doing the world a favor by taking Alex Nilsen off the market.”
I laugh, but it’s leaden in my stomach. “I’m not sure that’s what he wants.”
She shrugs. “Maybe not,” she says. “But most of us are too scared to even ask what we want, in case we can’t have it. Read that in this essay about something called ‘millennial ennui.’”
I stifle a laugh of surprise, clear my throat. “Kind of a catchy name.”
“Right?” she says. “Anyway. Good luck.”
* * *
• • •
BIRDIES IS ACROSS the street from the school, and the two-minute drive over is about four hours too short to formulate a new plan.
The whole flight down, I practiced my impassioned speech with the thought that it would be said in private, in his classroom.
Now it’s going to be in a bar full of teachers, including some whose classes I took (and skipped). If there’s one place I have judged more harshly than the fluorescent-lit halls of East Linfield High School, it’s the dark, cramped bar with the glowing neon BUDWEISER sign I’m entering right now.
All at once, the light of day is shut out and colorful dots dance in front of my eyes as they adjust to this dim place. There’s a Rolling Stones song playing on the radio, and considering it’s only three in the afternoon, the bar is already hopping with people in business casual, a sea of khakis and button-ups and cotton dresses in monochrome, not unlike Sarah’s getup. Golf paraphernalia hangs on the walls—clubs and green Astroturf and framed pictures of golfers and golf courses.
I know there’s a city in Illinois called Normal, but I’m guessing it doesn’t hold a candle to this suburban corner of the universe.
There are mounted TVs turned up too loud, a scratchy radio playing underneath that, bursts of laughter and raised voices coming from the groups crowded around high-tops or lined up along either side of narrow rectangular tables.
And then I see him.
Taller than most, stiller than all, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows and boots resting on the metal rung of his chair, his shoulders hunched forward and his phone out, thumb slowly scrolling up his screen. My heart rises into my throat until I can taste it, all metallic and hot and pulsing too hard.
There’s a part of me—fine, a majority—that wants to bolt, even after flying all the way here, but right then the door squeals open and Alex glances up, his eyes locking onto me.
We’re looking at each other, and I imagine I look nearly as shocked as he does, like I didn’t arrive specifically on a hot tip that he was here. I force myself to take a few steps toward him, then stop at the end of the table, where, gradually, the other teachers look up from their beers and white wines and vodka tonics to process the fact of me.
“Hi,” Alex says, little more than a whisper.
“Hi,” I say.
I wait for the rest to pour out. Nothing does.
“Who’s your friend?” an old lady in a maroon turtleneck asks. I clock her for Delallo, even before I see the ELHS name badge she’s still wearing around her neck.
“She’s . . .” Alex’s voice drops off. He stands from his chair. “Hi,” he says again.
The rest of the table are exchanging uncomfortable looks, kind of scooting their chairs in, angling their backs away in an attempt to give us a level of privacy that’s impossible at this point. Delallo, I notice, keeps one ear tilted almost precisely toward us.
“I came to the school,” I manage.
“Oh,” Alex says. “Okay.”
“I had this plan.” I rub my sweaty palms against my orange polyester bell-bottoms, wishing I wasn’t dressed like a traffic cone. “I was going to show up to the school, because I wanted you to know that if there’s one thing in this world that could get me to go there, it’s you.”
His eyes briefly pass over the table of teachers again. So far, my speech doesn’t seem to be comforting him. His eyes cut to mine, then drop to a vague point on my left. “Yeah, I know you really hate it there,” he murmurs.
“I do,” I agree. “I have a lot of bad memories there, and I wanted to show up there, and just, like, tell you, that . . . that I would go anywhere for you, Alex.”
“Poppy,” he says, the word half sigh, half plea.
“No, wait,” I say. “I know I have a fifty-fifty chance here, and there’s so much of me that wants to not even say the rest of this, Alex, but I need to, so please, don’t tell me yet if you need to break my heart. Okay? Let me say this before I lose the nerve.”
His lips part for a moment, his green-gold eyes like storm-flooded rivers, brutal and rushing. He presses his mouth closed again and nods.
Feeling like I’m jumping off a cliff, unable to see what lies through the fog beneath me, I go on.
“I loved running my blog,” I tell him. “I loved it so much, and I thought it was because I loved traveling—which I do. But in the last few years, everything changed. I wasn’t happy. Traveling felt different. And maybe you were sort of right that I came at you like you were a Band-Aid that could fix everything. Or whatever—a fun destination to give me a dopamine rush and a new perspective.”
His eyes drop. He won’t look at me, and I feel like even if he was the one who said it first, my confirmation is eating him alive.
“I started therapy,” I blurt out, trying to keep things moving. “And I was trying to figure out why it feels so different now, and I was listing all the differences between my life then and now, and it wasn’t just you. I mean, you’re the biggest one. You were on those trips, and then you weren’t, but that wasn’t the only change. All those trips we took, the best thing about them—other than doing it all with you—was the people.”