His gaze lifts, narrowed in thought.
“I loved meeting new people,” I explain. “I loved . . . feeling connected. Feeling interesting. Growing up here, I was so fucking lonely, and I always felt like there was something wrong with me. But I told myself if I went somewhere else, it would be different. There’d be other people like me.”
“I know that,” he says. “I know you hate it here, Poppy.”
“I did,” I say. “I hated it, so I escaped. And when Chicago didn’t fix everything for me, I left there too. Once I started traveling, though, things finally felt better. I met people, and—I don’t know, without the baggage of history or the fear of what would happen, it felt so much easier to open up to people. To make friends. I know it sounds pathetic, but all those little chance encounters we had—those made me less lonely. Those made me feel like I was someone people could love. And then I got the R+R job, and the trips changed; the people changed. I only met chefs and hotel managers, people wanting write-ups. I’d go on amazing trips, but I’d come home feeling empty. And now I realize it’s because I wasn’t connecting to anyone.”
“I’m glad you figured it out,” Alex says. “I want you to be happy.”
“But here’s the thing,” I say. “Even if I quit my job and started taking the blog seriously again, went back to meeting all the Bucks and Litas and Mathildes of the world—it’s not going to make me happy.
“I needed those people, because I felt alone. I thought I had to run hundreds of miles away from here to find some place to belong. I spent my whole life thinking anyone outside my family who got too close, saw too much, wouldn’t want me anymore. The safest thing was those quick, serendipitous moments with strangers. That’s all I thought I could have.
“And then there was you.” My voice wobbles dangerously. I steel myself, straighten my spine. “I love you so much that I’ve spent twelve years putting as much distance between us as I could. I moved. I traveled. I dated other people. I talked about Sarah all the fucking time because I knew you had a crush on her, and it felt safer that way. Because the last person I could take being rejected by was you.
“And now I know that. I know it’s not traveling that’s gonna get me out of this slump and it’s not a new job and it’s sure as hell not chance encounters with water taxi drivers. All of that, every minute of it, has been running away from you, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
“I love you, Alex Nilsen. Even if you don’t give me a real chance, I’m always going to love you. And I’m scared to move back to Linfield because I don’t know if I’d like it here, or if I’d be bored, or if I’d make any friends, and because I’m terrified to run into the people who made me feel like I didn’t matter and for them to decide they were right about me.
“I want to stay in New York,” I say. “I like it there, and I think you would too, but you asked me what I’d be willing to give up for you, and now I know the answer is: everything. There’s nothing in this whole world that I’ve built in my head that I’m not prepared to let go of to build a new one with you. I’ll go into East Linfield High—I don’t just mean today. I mean if you want to stay here, I’ll go to fucking high school basketball games with you. I’ll wear hand-painted T-shirts with players’ names on them—I’ll learn the players’ names! I won’t just make them up! I’ll go to your dad’s house and drink diet soda and try my hardest not to cuss or talk about our sex life, and I’ll babysit your nieces and nephew with you in Betty’s house—I’ll help you take down wallpaper! I hate taking down wallpaper!
“You’re not a vacation, and you’re not the answer to my career crisis, but when I’m in a crisis or I’m sick or I’m sad, you’re the only thing I want. And when I’m happy, you make me so much happier. I still have a lot to figure out, but the one thing I know is, wherever you are, that’s where I belong. I’ll never belong anywhere like I belong with you. No matter what I’m feeling, I want you next to me. You’re home to me, Alex. And I think I’m that for you too.”
By the time I finish, I’m breathing hard. Alex’s face is torqued with worry, but beyond that I can’t read too many specifics. He doesn’t say anything right away, and the silence—or lack of it (Pink Floyd has started to play over the speakers and a sports announcer is jabbering on one of the TVs overhead)—unfurls like a rug, stretching longer and longer between us until I feel like I’m on the opposite side of a very dark, beer-sticky mansion.
“And one more thing.” I fish my phone out of my bag, open to the correct photo, and hold it out to him. He doesn’t take the phone, just looks at the image on-screen without touching.
“What’s this?” he says softly.
“That,” I say, “is a houseplant I’ve kept alive since I got back from Palm Springs.”
A quiet laugh leaks out of him.
“It’s a snake plant,” I say. “And apparently they’re extremely hard to kill. Like, I could probably take a chainsaw to it and it would survive. But it’s the longest I’ve kept anything alive, and I wanted you to see it. So you’d know. I’m serious.”
He nods without saying anything, and I tuck my phone back into my bag.
“That’s it,” I say, a little bewildered. “That’s the whole speech. You can talk now.”
The corner of his mouth quirks, but the smile doesn’t stay, and even while it’s there, it holds nothing like mirth in its tight curve.
“Poppy.” My name has never sounded quite so long or miserable.
“Alex,” I say.
His hands go to his hips. He glances sidelong, though there’s nothing there to look at, except an Astroturf wall and a faded photo of someone in a pom-pom-topped golf hat. When he looks back at me, there are tears in his eyes, but I know right away he won’t let them fall. That’s the kind of self-restraint Alex Nilsen has.