I hadn’t been thinking about Gabe the first time I saw Owen undressed. Instead, I was thinking about the importance and difficulties of bringing clean water to remote African villages, and trying to come up with another word for problem.
It was halfway through the first term of my second year and I hadn’t seen the weak Welsh sunshine for so long, I’d forgotten what it looked like. From my usual spot in a secluded corner of the library, a small study room with a privacy door, I gazed out into the evening drizzle, wondering if it would ever stop. As I willed the right word to spring into my mind, I stared out at the halls of residence a short distance past the faculty parking entrance. I didn’t realize I was looking right into an open window until my brain registered a semi-naked body. In the second-to-last window on the third floor, a student wandered across his dorm room wrapped only in a ratty-looking towel that was probably once white, but was now an indefinable shade of gray. His dark blond hair was wet and tousled and it was clear he’d just come in from the showers, as his pale skin was still slightly pink from the hot water. He had a nice body—not too muscular, but not flabby either—and he moved across the floor with neither a swagger nor an apologetic shuffle. Even from this distance he looked friendly. I was still staring when he walked towards the window and reached up to close the curtains. For a brief instant I took in the Jesus-like stance of his elongated torso and his outstretched arms, and my eyes ran down over his chest and across his extended abdomen. When I finally dragged my attention back up to his face, he was looking directly at me…and smiling.
Snapping closed my jaw (which I hadn’t noticed had been hanging slack), I dropped my burning face into my hands and prayed the floor would open up and swallow me whole. What a pervert I was, sitting there, practically drooling at the free show. I imagined running into him on campus and being pointed out as the Peeping Thomasina who lurked in the library on the pretense of doing homework and instead scanned the dorms for half-naked men. Oh, the humiliation! But as I sat there envisioning the scene, I was startled by a dormant feeling that stirred inside me. Although I knew I’d never feel the same about anyone else as I had about Gabe, I was shocked by the familiarity of the tingling sensation in my belly that was now boarding a train to all points south.
When the floor refused to open up and offer me a humble escape, I persuaded myself that maybe he hadn’t really noticed me watching him and that perhaps he was just smiling to himself at the wonder of the day, gray and murky as it was. But when I looked up, Towel Boy was still standing in the window, only now he was grinning at me. As if to confirm the stupidity of my argument, he lifted one hand and waved. I closed my eyes, gathered my resolve, and gave him a timid wave back. Then he laughed and drew the curtains closed.
I tried to focus on my paper, but a million other thoughts rushed through my head. Any ideas about desalination, irrigation, and sanitation were elbowed aside by embarrassment, irritation, and surprise. I was embarrassed that I’d been caught looking, irritated that I was embarrassed, and surprised at the feelings of lust that stirred in a long-forgotten corner of my soul. That was Gabe’s corner, his alone, and there would never be room there for anyone else.
I grabbed a lock of my cropped hair and forced it behind my ear, determined to put this silliness behind me. Turning back to my laptop, I tried to ignore the prickles of excitement zinging around inside me, and focused on forming a coherent sentence. “Even when environmentalists and engineers solve the logistical problems of providing potable water to remote Sub-Saharan African villages, they must still overcome issues of culture and tradition.”
For at least ten minutes, I kept my mind on my work, clicking out sentence after focused sentence, but when the curtains of the next-to-last dorm room on the third floor flew open, my brain registered it instantly. Towel Boy was now Khakis-and-T-shirt Boy. His hair had been dried so that it flopped casually over one eyebrow and he looked crisp, clean, and (mercifully) dressed. But he was looking directly at me. For a brief moment, I met his gaze and gave him a sheepish smile, a poor apology for my ogling.
“Hi!” he mouthed, and waved.
“Hello,” I mouthed back.
He held out his arms and pirouetted to display his outfit, then turned back and held up his thumbs as if asking for my approval.
I did approve, and despite the little voice in my head telling me to look away, to focus on my work, to think about Gabe, I smiled and gave him two thumbs up.
He mouthed again, pointing to himself. “I’m…” but I couldn’t make out what he was trying to tell me he was. He tried again. It looked as if he saying he was wet, but that made no sense. I shrugged. He thought for a minute then raised his arms above his head, curving them until his fingertips met like a prima ballerina’s, and pursed his lips like a goldfish. I ran through the possibilities of what he was doing—dancing, kissing, making a circle—then realized he was trying to indicate a letter.
“O?” I mouthed back, as the light bulb went on.
He nodded. Buoyed by his success, he began strutting around in a circle, bobbing his head and flapping his tucked up arms like stumpy wings. It took several seconds of me flitting from his strange chicken dance to the word he was desperately trying to mouth, before I finally came up with hen. O. Hen. Owen. My name is Owen.
This was fun. I opened my notebook to a blank page, drew a big circle with two pointy ears and a fine set of whiskers, and held it up to the window. He looked, pantomimed cleaning imaginary whiskers, and mouthed the question, “Cat?” I nodded, flipped the page and drew a big letter K. “Kat,” I mouthed back.
Owen grinned. Then, he held up his hand in the “stay” position. He hurried around his room gathering various items and putting on a jacket, and came back to the window. He pointed to himself, then to me, and then wiggled two fingers in a walking motion. He held his hand up again, then turned and left his room.
And that’s when I panicked.
What had started as an innocent attempt to cover my embarrassment at being caught staring, had turned into flirting. I couldn’t deny it, not to myself, nor to any jury. I had been flirting with Owen the Towel Boy, and now he was coming over to talk to me, in person. What was I going to do? The very last thing I needed was man trouble. So, I’d seen a good-looking bloke. Big deal. The world was full of them. That didn’t mean I should go all wobbly every time someone with a twinkly smile was nice to me. “I just don’t need that kind of hassle in my life right now,” I told the wall.
But when would I be ready for that kind of hassle? How long was it supposed to take before I could flirt with someone across two panes of glass and a car park, and then stay in my seat when he came over to talk? How long until I could say, “Yes, I like you, I’m willing to take a chance on you.”? Was two years, seven months, and 27 days long enough?
I gathered up my things, already plotting the best escape route, and I had just stuffed the last of my papers into my bag when I heard a tapping noise at the door. For a second, I hoped it was Lew, the library custodian, making his rounds to turf out the last of the students, but when the door opened, there stood Owen, dressed in his khakis and a black Henley, the top two buttons of which (I couldn’t help but notice) were undone. I froze in my seat like a rabbit cornered in the beam of the farmer’s flashlight and staring straight down the barrels of a shotgun.
“You’re going to turn into a mushroom if you spend all day in here,” he said, sliding into the tiny room. “Mind if I come in?”
I shook my head and swallowed, finally finding my voice. “No,” I croaked, even though it was a redundant response, given that he had already perched on the edge of my desk.
“I’m Owen,” he said, holding out his hand.
“I know. Kat,” I said, taking his hand and shaking it, aware of the coolness of his fingers beneath my hand and the heat radiating between our palms. His wide, square fingernails were perfectly clean and neatly clipped, except for one orange nail that looked as if it had fallen victim to a misfired chemistry experiment.
“Right. With a K.”
I nodded, my mouth suddenly dry. His hair wasn’t really blond after all, I noticed. It was light on the ends, getting darker nearer to his scalp, and in front of one ear it curled up in a way that made me want to reach out and touch it.
“I thought, as you’d seen me naked, I’d better come and introduce myself,” he said. When he smiled, I caught a mischievous glint in his pale blue eyes.
My face burned with embarrassment. I tried to find some witty retort, but the cat, as my grandma would always say, had my tongue. The memory of Owen’s torso at the window sent a new burst of nervous heat through my body and triggered that old abdominal tingle again, but before I could babble anything embarrassing, Lew appeared in the doorway. Never was I so glad to see him.
“Everything alright, pet?” he said, giving Owen a sideways glance, as if the last thing Lew expected was a boy in my presence. I nodded. “Closing time in a few,” he said. I glanced at my watch, thanked him, and took the opportunity to turn away from Owen back to my laptop, where I could gather my wits. I could feel the waves of magnetism beaming out of me towards Owen and I needed to pull them back in. My mind raced with all the possible ways I could escape from the situation, maintain my dignity, and not hurt Owen’s feelings. Just be cool, Kat, I thought. You’re a grown-up. You can handle this. Be kind, but firm, and most of all, be cool.
I turned back to Owen, flicking my head, as if my old long hair was still attached, and fixed him with my best, composed look. I opened my mouth to tell him he should leave, but the smile he returned zinged at my solar plexus and exploded in me like red phosphorous and bromine. And all I could think to say was, “Shall we?” So much for being cool.
Owen waited while I gathered up my belongings and my composure, and we walked together through the almost deserted library, making small talk. He asked me what I was studying and I told him Environmental Science, second year. I asked the same. His answer was Chemistry, final year. He asked me where I was from and told me his parents lived in a little village called Holmbury St. Mary in Sussex. It sounded so quaint compared to the harsh, lumbering sound of my hometown.
When we got to the library entrance and I had waved goodnight to Lew, I pointed myself towards home. “It was nice to meet you in person, Owen,” I said.
“In the flesh, so to speak,” he said.
I laughed. “Yes. So to speak.”
“Do you fancy a cuppa?” he asked. “I’ve got chocolate biscuits. Or we could just go to Blasters. My treat.”
Yes, please, my heart sang out. Go with him. Go on. But my head was determined not to take this any further. “You make a tempting offer, but it’s late and I should get going.”
“Some other time, then,” said Owen, but instead of turning towards his dorm building, he turned towards the campus gates. I paused, waiting for some kind of explanation. “Even if my chocolate biscuits aren’t good enough for you, I’m not letting you walk across town alone at this hour.”
I started to object, but Owen wasn’t about to listen. He held out his arm in mock gallantry and I took it, no longer able to keep a smile off my face.
“Look what I made today,” he said, as we walked through the quiet streets. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a rubber ball.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Super ball,” he said, dropping it and watching it bounce right back. “Made it myself out of borax, cornstarch, and glue.”
“Your parents must be so proud,” I laughed.
“And who says education’s a waste of money?” He grinned at me.
We were still laughing and talking when I reached the gate of my house, and a part of me wanted to invite Owen in, so we could keep talking and laughing. But I didn’t. As I rummaged through my pockets, looking for my key, I tried to analyze what had just happened. It was clear he was interested in me, but he certainly wasn’t pushy. So was he that interested? Or was he just a gentleman? He was polite, and he was kind and funny, too. And, try as I might, I couldn’t deny he was attractive. As I pushed my key into the lock, I realized that I liked him. A lot. His easy-going nature and friendly smile had poked at a tender hole in me that I hadn’t realized was there. I’d been carrying around a small dark cloud for so long, it had become a part of my being and I hadn’t thought to name it until now. It turned out that spot was loneliness.
“How about tea tomorrow?” I blurted, surprising myself as much as Owen. For a second he lost control of his ball and fumbled to catch it.
“Blasters?” he said, “And I’ll sneak in some homemade cake.”
“Chocolate hazelnut marble cake. My specialty.”
I peered at Owen, looking for signs that he was pulling my leg. He wasn’t.
“You think the only thing chemists know how to do is blow things up or make polymer toys?” he said. “Baking is pure chemistry.”
And with that, he turned away and all I could focus on was the pheromones drifting from him and causing my nostrils to flare. That, and the tiny dust cloud of worry that had stirred up inside me.