“How long has it been since you’ve been camping, anyway?” She asked, trailing along behind him down the narrow dirt path. The air around them was dry and thick with gnats; the foliage along the trail lush and untamed. Even though they were only a few meters from the campsite, she had the sensation of being lost in an overgrown jungle. It was so easy to imagine that they were on their own, miles from any trace of humanity–which, she supposed, was what he wanted. He had no patience for “pretend” camping, for precut firewood or charcoal, for the loud music and conversation that drifted over from a neighboring campsite. He wanted the raw experience, and if they couldn’t find it here, he would simulate it–by cutting down an actual tree branch with a handsaw and an axe, no less. Secretly, she wondered if he was doing it to impress her. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the muscles in his arms bulge with effort, his shirt sticking to his back in sweaty patches, his hair wild and standing on end. Something tightened deep inside her, almost like a longing. She wouldn’t tell him how much it was working.
Afterward, they hauled the logs and branches back to the fire pit, and she watched as he carefully arranged a pyramid of sticks and lit a tiny, crackling fire. She placed a cast-iron skillet over the flames and added a jumble of sausage and vegetables while he carried logs over to a corner of the campsite and began splitting them carefully with the axe. It was peaceful now, with shadows spreading between the trees and the sun sinking lazily into pillow of clouds. The hot air had cooled, and even the swirls of gnats had melted into a chorus of locusts that sang merrily in the treetops. As darkness began to thicken around them like a haze, he staggered back to the fire under an armload of wood and said, “Go over to those trees over there and look at the sunset.” She ambled over to a cluster of trees a few yards away and turned toward the west, where she felt the warm, orange glow on her hands and face even before she saw it. It was glorious. It was perfect.
Later, when the contents of the skillet had been devoured along with a perfectly ripe watermelon, he stoked the fire while she collected a blanket from the back of his truck and they wandered through the darkness to the edge of the campsite. Apart from the occasional glare of headlights along the road, the night was undisturbed, the darkening sky peppered with millions of stars. They spread the blanket in the middle of a small field and lay for a long time, her head nestled comfortably on his chest, watching the satellites float back and forth and talking about nothing–or everything. It was all the same to her. Through his shirt, she could feel his chest rising and falling with each breath, his strong heart beating beneath her hand. She was engulfed in the smell of him–something familiar, earthy, and pleasantly sweet. She ran her fingers across his chest and down his arms, her fingertips grazing the palms of his hands, relishing their roughness. They were like him: strong and rugged, etched with scars and callouses that echoed all the things that he had done, the full life that he had lived. She traced them, memorizing every line, until he abruptly pulled his hands away. “Sorry they’re so rough,” he murmured. “I have a lot of callouses from working at U-Haul.”
No, she pleaded silently. Please, don’t be sorry. Never be sorry for that. But she said nothing. The feelings that swirled inside her were too new, too intense to be put into words. Instead, she sat up and said, “This hard ground is hurting my back. Ready to head back and have s’mores?”
The cool, summer breeze felt good on her bare skin as she peeled her damp, sweaty T-shirt over her head. Thank God for sports bras, she mused to herself as she crawled into the tent, where he had spread blankets to make a cozy little bed. He followed her, silently pausing to remove his own shirt, and reached for her, wrapping his bare arms around her back and pulling her to his chest. His skin felt smooth and warm against hers, and she could feel his breath in her hair and she nestled against him. For a few minutes there was only silence, punctuated by their gentle breathing and the quiet hum of locusts in the trees outside the tent. Then, suddenly, she felt him tense.
“I love you,” he said simply, turning to face her.
She felt a stirring deep inside her, as though something long-sealed was being cracked open. Her mind flashed back to the conversation she had had with Megan just two nights before, and suddenly she felt weak, lightheaded, strangely floaty.
“How are things going with Cole?” Megan had asked.
“Amazing. Wonderful. Scary,” she had answered. How could she put words to this feeling that had been building inside her for days, eating away at her, lifting her up?
“Because...” she had paused, unsure of what to say. “Because he is the most complex, driven person I have ever known. Because when I’m with him he makes me feel things I didn’t know I could feel and crave things I didn’t know I wanted. Because he just wants to experience everything there is to experience and see the universe in ways that no one has before. It’s like there are two sides to him: the superhuman side, and the side that is down to earth and vulnerable and sweet and just wants to be loved. And I...I think I’m in love with him and it’s so soon, and it’s so much, and I don’t want to scare him away.”
“Really?” She asked. Did he just say...?
“Yes, really,” he said.
He was waiting for her to say something. To say it back. And she wanted to, oh she wanted to, and yet there was no way with just three tiny words to express to him the extent of her feelings, the complexity of what he meant to her, the fluttery feeling in her stomach when she caught him looking at her, the relief washing over her as she realized that she had not been imagining the spark between them after all. Later, in the days and weeks that followed, she would lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling and willing those words to come, but for now they simply were not there. And so she rolled over until she was on top of him, staring down into his eyes, hoping that he would feel her response.
She felt his body tense beneath her, his hands sliding down her back, so strong and yet so gentle on her bare skin. She pressed her forehead into his and relished in the feeling of his cool breath on her face, the electricity that seemed to crackle in her fingertips and she trailed her fingers down the stubble on his chin, the ridges of his collarbone, the curves of his shoulders. His lips caught hers in a tiny gasp, at first warm and gentle, but growing stronger as their kiss deepened. And then suddenly she felt his tongue rising to meet hers, pushing past her lips, claiming her, leaving her breathless and dizzy. His hands cupped the curves of her body and pulled her against him, and she felt something–him–hard and throbbing beneath her thigh. She was open, she was light, she was melting, she was nothing and everything all at once, she was shivering, she was burning up. She had never known that it could feel like this. When she moaned softly into his mouth, it felt as though he were wrenching every last bit of self-control and rational thought from her body.
When time started again–minutes or hours later? She didn’t know–she lay beside him, waiting for her ragged breathing to return to normal. Above them, the stars continued to shine, visible through the open rain shield at the side of the tent.
“Did you feel that?” He whispered, reaching for her hand.
He paused. “I just felt this...this feeling of...joy. Sweeping over me. I’ve never felt that before. Did you feel it?”
She smiled into the darkness even though she knew he couldn’t see her. “Something like that.” The truth was that she had felt everything, not just then, but every day she spent with him. The tiny things he did or said, like the way his eyes lit up when he talked about the things that he had built; the eagerness with which he described a new idea, a new view of the world; the gentleness in his voice when he told her about his niece; the long sighs and sideways glances that he thought she didn’t see; the way he challenged her, enlightened her, frustrated her; the way his body clenched, as though in pain, when he described the darkness of his life before her that made her want to hold him until those feelings disappeared–all those things and more made up the tiny part of him that she knew. And even with all of that, there was so much more of him for her to learn.
Someday she would be able to tell him. Someday the words would come. But for now, she could only abbreviate what she wanted to say to him with a few words, the same words that had been used by billions of humans for thousands of years.
She told him, “I love you too.
And in that moment, those three vague words seemed to say it all.