I’m looking at the stiff across the table. He’s explaining the mechanism by which root vegetables are irrigated here in Amity. Tris looks sort of resigned, but Four looks like he’s going to strangle the kid if he doesn’t shut up. I chuckle to myself and they all look at me. Caleb goes silent and looks sort of hurt. He goes back to eating his root vegetables and I feel a guilty lurch in my stomach. Tris and Four both glare at me, which seems disingenuous, considering how invested they were in Caleb’s agricultural lecture a moment ago. The table does seem remarkably dull, now that Caleb isn’t filling the air with his voice. It’s honestly annoying how charming I find his enthusiasm.
After a few moments of silence, Tris and Four stand and depart the table, glowering in perfect unison. Caleb sits still for a moment, then emerges from whatever dream he’s lost himself in and looks around. He seems surprised to find himself alone with me, and I half expect him to dart off like a frightened animal.
He doesn’t though. He just ducks his head a little and starts gathering up his silverware. “I’m not sure you’re right about all that.” I say, looking at the top of his lowered head. His eyes snap up to meet mine. “Not right about what?” I smile. “The irrigation thing. You make it sound pretty complicated but I’m not sure you’re right.” He looks really irritated. Erudite don’t like being proved wrong, but that’s not it. He’s frustrated because I’m withholding information from him. “Listen, stiff, it’s a little hard to explain.” He settles down on the bench, drops his silverware onto the tray, folds his arms. “Try me.”
“Well it’s not that I don’t think you’re up to it, I just think it would be easier to show you, rather than tell you.” My throat feels really dry suddenly. I want this to work, but I can tell he thinks I’m up to something. His sister has obviously poisoned him against me. “Listen, Peter. I don’t know what you’re trying to do–” I cut him off by standing up abruptly. “Hey Stiff, it’s up to you. You seem like a guy who likes to know the truth of a situation.” He’s looking up at me, squinting against the dying sun. “I could show you something that would help you find the truth in this particular situation, but if you’re not interested, that’s fine.” I turn and walk away, furious at the lump in my throat and the sick twist of disappointment in my gut. I shouldn’t want this, whatever this is, so much.
“Peter, wait.” I smile, suddenly feeling the warmth of the sun as though it were noon, rather than nearly dusk.
Caleb and I walk out into the woods together. He’s a pace and a half behind me, trying to keep an eye on me because he doesn’t trust me, and he keeps tripping over roots and whacking his forehead on low-hanging branches. I’m chewing my lip, trying not too laugh but also a little frustrated at how charming I find his ineptitude.
“Peter, where are we going?” I can’t quite decide if he sounds nervous or just anxious to go back to the compound where he won’t get hit so much by trees.
“It’s not much further.” The sound of his footsteps stops abruptly. “That isn’t what I asked, Peter.” My gut is twisting again. I keep walking, I don’t look at him. “Suit yourself.”
For a while after that I can’t hear his footsteps crashing through the underbrush. I keep walking and when I emerge into the clearing with the big, still pond, I turn. He isn’t there. I’m furious. Mostly at myself, but also at Tris for whatever she told Caleb about me, whatever warning she scrawled across my image in his mind. I think about turning and running back to him. I know I’d catch up with him pretty quickly, and in any case he’s probably going to get lost trying to head back up to the compound. I smile a little at the idea of him lost in the woods, racking his brain for some scrap of information about how to navigate by starlight or the patterns of moss on the trees.
I look out at the dark, cool water of the pond and decide to go swimming by myself. I walked all the way out here, after all. I can at least cool off with a swim. I strip off all my clothes and walk into the water. It’s cool, but it’s been heated by the sun all day, so it’s not as icy as I would have expected. For a minute, I stand with just my feet submerged, trying to quiet the disappointment that’s swelling into rage in my chest. Rage is where all my emotions seem eventually to end. It’s not going away, so I walk further into the water and finally slip my head under the water. I open my eyes and rest for a moment, breathless in a dim green world.
When I lift my head out of the water, I can sense immediately that someone is watching me. I turn towards the trees and see the lanky outline of Caleb standing amongst my discarded clothes. The knot in my stomach vanishes, to be replaced with a strong tingling sensation. I swim towards the bank.
When I get close enough to stand, I notice Caleb is very carefully keeping his eyes focused on my face. I smile. Once a stiff always a stiff. “You see what I mean? All that complicated irrigation technology doesn’t make sense if they have this beautiful natural source right here in the woods–”
“We shouldn’t be here, Peter.” I laugh. “You can do what you want, stiff. I came all the way out here, so I’m going for a swim.” He looks down at his feet. “I don’t know the way back.” I laugh, and swim out into the water. “Peter!” he calls out. I lift my legs and float on my back. I don’t have to look back to the bank to know he’s having trouble deciding where to rest his eyes.
“What if someone finds us out here?”
“It’ll look a lot worse if you’re just standing there watching.” There’s a silence. This isn’t going exactly the way I’d hoped, but making the poor stiff uncomfortable is good enough, I guess. “Maybe I like to watch.” I think my heart actually stops for a couple of seconds, but possibly it was just resting up before pumping all the blood in my body immediately to my groin. I sink back into the water and turn to face him. I don’t have any idea what to say. My instinct, as always, is to strike back. But I want him to come here, to me. I want to touch his hair and his lips. I don’t know what sort of words are best used to achieve that outcome, so I stay silent.
I wish I could see his face. He’s standing in the ever-growing darkness on the shore, unmoving. After a long moment of silence, I hear him laugh. I’m about to get angry about it, but before I can gather myself enough to feel one way or another, I see him reach down for the hem of his shirt and lift it over his head. Again I find myself speechless, and now unable to move, unable to react in any way. I wish I’d brought him here in the daytime so I could see him, see his face and see him undressing, not just as a vague silhouette but in wonderous detail.
As it is, I can see his shirt hit the ground, and I see the outline of his long, thin torso. His stupid baggy pants follow the shirt to the ground, and then a remarkably naked Caleb is moving through the water towards me. This is way more than I expected would happen. I mean, the kid is a stiff, so what is he doing moving towards me through the water, totally exposed? Since when are stiffs so comfortable being naked, or seeing other people naked? @I mean, his sister still won’t change her clothes in front of anyone. But here we are. And as he gets closer, I can see the smooth skin of his chest, the soft curve of his bicep, the thin trail of golden hair creeping down from his belly button.
I feel weightless and empty headed, like a fog has invaded my brain and completely erased everything except the increasing nearness of Caleb and the new details of his body I am taking in moment by moment. I see the farmer’s tan on his arms, where he’s been rolling up the sleeves of his ill-fitting borrowed clothes, the curls in his hair where he has neglected to trim it. I see that his nails are clean and well kept, though he’s been digging all day. I can see the shape of his shoulders (surprisingly broad for his thin frame) and the tautness of the muscles of his abdomen. I have already studied the exact shape of his lips and the absurd length of his eyelashes, but I catalogue them anyway as he moves towards me.
Finally, he stops. He’s maybe a foot away from me, closer than arm’s length. I could touch his face. I could pull him to me. “Nothing to say, Peter?” But I have no words, only the list of things I know about him and his body. “That’s refreshing.” I want to be mad at him for getting the best of me but I can’t bring myself to summon any strong emotion through the haze of Caleb’s shoulders and Caleb’s skin and Caleb’s arms. “It’s not as cold as I thought it would be.” He looks up at the star filled sky above us. “It must get direct sunlight for most of the day, so it–” I’m not going to stand here and listen to a lecture about the way water can store heat. I grab the back of his neck and pull him to me, press my lips to his.
He doesn’t resist even a little. He’s slides through the water and leans his long body against mine, his hands sliding into my hair and around my back. His long fingers trace new paths across my skin and there are parts of me coming to life that I’m not even familiar with. I kiss him, and kiss him, opening my mouth, opening his. Maybe I can pass the fog from my brain into his and he won’t be able to think about what a bad idea this is. Maybe if his brain goes foggy he’ll stay here with me in this secret pond in the woods and let me catalogue every detail of his body until the sun comes up to warm the water. Maybe it’s already working because he’s smiling into the kiss and his big hands are heading south and my head may be foggy but the rest of me is on fire with the need to touch and be touched. To know and be known.