For the next month, Diesel and I ran club cross country and I tutored her in science. Everyday at 3:30pm, we met by the soccer field. With sixteen other kids, we passed creeks, hurdled through dirt roads, climbed up hills. By then the weather was fall-like. Diesel wore shorts with long sleeve shirts and a baseball cap. I heaved a lot at first but the air, the sunshine, and the curve of her hamstrings when she jogged way ahead of me made me stick to the sport. I no longer fingered the rough jasper in my pocket. Instead, I left it in my desk drawer.
As my chest strengthened, I began looking at her more. Just quick but full on glances. My confidence grew. Sometimes, I’d make myself count to three as I admired the back of her shoulders or the wisp of hair sneaking out of her cap. Certain days she wore eyeliner and others she went makeup free. She didn’t have a six-pack like the other girls. Her hips didn’t jut out. But, man, her legs were long and sinewy. She could out run anyone.
One night, after practice, I went to shower. When I opened the door to the co-ed bathroom, there she was standing by the sink still in her sports bra and running shorts.
“Sorry.” I covered my eyes. Default.
“Chill Len,” she said.
Because my chest felt stronger, even invincible from the runs, I took a few cautious steps toward her, still high on adrenaline. Her voice and presence had, unbeknownst to me, become my siren’s song. Diesel slipped off her sports bra and her shorts. In her cotton underwear, she grabbed the privacy sign and put the “No one come in while I’m showering” side. She slipped the rubber band from her hair and wriggled out of her undies.
“That run sucked this afternoon. Didn’t it?” she said.
“Uh huh,” I answered.
Diesel, naked, was a miracle.
I don’t remember much aside from her stepping into the shower, the curtain wide open, and water gushing on her shoulders. Her hair grew wet, the color darkening, and when she looked out at me, eyes startlingly green, waist sloping in, soap bubbles sliding on her skin, I had to look away in order not to cry.
“What?” she said.
I couldn’t tell her.
I couldn’t tell her that I’d never kissed a girl and that looking at her was not like looking at the sun or at an eclipse the way I’d imagined it, but more like staring at dancing flames of a far away wild fire. Something not blinding but mesmerizing, yet still untouchable. In our dirty college dorm shower, I said the dumbest words in the world.
“I love you.”
“Come here,” she said.
I took off my shorts then pulled off my t-shirt and followed her into the shower. She stood with her chin tilted toward me. I dared to believe that the most meaningful moment of my life was about to happen. I imagined it: my lips finding hers, us fusing, our physical boundaries dissolving. All here, finally, on this random college campus. How I would be transformed, cleansed of everything. But then Diesel ran a finger on my newest cut, on the soft scab in the shape of a zigzag.
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
I was so flustered at her not only seeing but touching my wounds, at her nakedness near my own, and at her perfect skin inches from my ugly scars that all I could do was turn my back to her and let the water burn me.
We didn’t do a thing.
Diesel waited, breath warm on my back.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I wished so hard for the drain of the shower to suck me down into its black tunnel among the hair and grime. I wiped at my eyes.
“Lennon?” she said. “Look at me.”
“Please,” she said. “Do you not want to be with me?”
“God no,” I said, “It’s not that.”
“What is it then?”
But, again, I couldn’t find the words.
When the water became lukewarm, Diesel stepped around me, exited the shower, dried herself, and left. I yanked the curtain closed and would later wish to have found an old razor blade lying around, or to have rushed back to my room to dig around for my Jasper, because maybe then the pain of yet another cut would have alleviated what would soon follow, but Diesel’s earlier presence had bewitched me. I lathered myself up, wondering what it might have felt like had she done it for me.
For the next several days, I walked around campus in a daze, aware mostly of my body, of my nakedness near hers, only conscious of blood pumping through my veins. I hardly thought. Birds chirped. Autumn’s golden colors seemed more acute than ever before. I conjured up Diesel’s tiny waist, the way water had dripped from her hair, drops swirling from her collarbone to her belly button, her lemon scent agonizing.
I didn’t notice her retreat right away. After all, I’d looked directly at her. In the shower.
For a long time.
While both of us were naked.
We’d dissolved the gap, hadn’t we?
If I’d lifted my palm out I would have touched her. Shivers ran up my spine. I kept waiting for my door to open, for her to hop up on my bed, and for us to discuss her latest physics challenges. I yearned to say something, even maybe grab her by the shoulders and kiss her. Tell her I wanted to shower with her again.
But one night, as Steve sat at his desk, studying he said, “Your girlfriend is interesting.”
“Do you have one?” I asked, certain of his answer, certain that Steve was not the kind to date, that they’d made us room together for that exact reason, that even white boys, only really complicated ones, could sometimes experience the gap for their own mysterious reasons. I nearly told him about the shower. About Diesel looking like flames. I wanted to tell the whole wide world that I’d crossed to the other side of the canyon. I also secretly liked how he’d called her my girlfriend.
“Yep,” he said, startling me, pen scratching the page. “This is Izzy.” He pointed to the black and white photograph above his bed.
“I thought that was your sister,” I said.
He laughed. “Well, then, my sister gives good head.”
I must have looked like I was bugging out because he added, “Relax. FYI, I think she’s coming up this weekend.” He turned toward me. “I hate to be an ass,” he said. “But your girl is using you, dude. I saw her hanging out with Tyler last night on the couches downstairs. All snuggly. The other day she ran out of the library with another dude.”
“Must have been someone else,” I said.
“Wish it were.”.
I didn’t believe him. I waited for Diesel to pop her head in my room. I would ask point blank. She’d snort and say, “Your roomie is odd.” But Diesel didn’t show. When I went to club cross country for the next few days, she wasn’t there either. She skipped our tutoring sessions. At night, I couldn’t sleep. So on Friday around midnight, I got up and tiptoed to 212. For the first time, I knocked on Diesel’s door. Tyler cracked it open. His eyes were squinty, lips swollen, and, to my greatest surprise, his skin was the color of milk chocolate, a shade or two darker than mine. I’d never seen him before. He was definitely an athlete. He wore basketball shorts low on his hips and no shirt. He also sported a nice fade. The width of his shoulders was twice mine and, unlike mine, his biceps were smooth.
“Is Diesel here?” I said, my voice tiny.
Tyler opened the door wider and curled up on her twin bed with Christmas lights blinking around her Diesel lay asleep. She wore a white nightgown that I’d never seen before. It rose high up on her thighs. But what freaked me out the most was that Tyler’s bed was made, a navy comforter pulled up to the headboard. Their names were etched on the wall in silver letters separated by an &. Tyler & Diesel, as if they were married. His flip-flops peeked from under her bed.
“Are you guys a couple?” I whispered.
His smile infuriated me.
“Look, dude, chill out alright? This is college,” he said. “No commitments. Just convenient rooming arrangements. I’ll tell her you dropped by in the morning.”
That night, if I’d been someone else, I might have realized that what had happened with Diesel was just part of the college experience. Meet kids. Hang in each other’s rooms. Do clubs. Run. Shower together. Sometimes have sex, sometimes not. Move on.
But not me.
Not the kid with the gap.
Not the kid who thought he’d climbed into the helicopter and finally zoomed to the other side when he’d gone nowhere after all.
The next morning, I waited for her in the hallway. When she came out of her room, backpack swinging, I looked at her full on. She wore a loose bun and faded overalls. A wisp of hair fell on her lips. I had the urge to brush it away. When she kept walking, I grabbed her wrist.
“What?” she said, the softness in her voice gone.
My chest hurt. “We haven’t hung out since,” I paused, unable to say Since I saw you naked.
Diesel chuckled but her eyes were sad. “I thought we had a cool thing going but whatever. You need help, Lennon.”
She hurried down the stairwell. I ran after her.
“Why weren’t you at practice yesterday?”
“Come to find out I hate running.”
Before we could talk more, Tyler and a few other players sauntered outside on the dorm quad and waved at her. They wore hoodies and sweatpants. In the sun, Tyler spun a basketball on the tip of his index finger.
The & sign floated in front of my eyes.
“Look,” she replied, voice above a whisper. “The whole thing was too weird. Not just what you do to yourself,” she paused, wincing, “But how you stood there, ignoring me. It was humiliating.”
My face burned. “I didn’t mean to,” I said. I thought of the strangeness of being intimate with another person, how if they hurt you, or you them, you could both slip into the canyon and never make it back out.
“I gotta go,” she said.
Outside the dorms, wind blew. I attended classes. Steve ate lunch with me and as we walked out of the cafeteria, he gently tapped my shoulder and said, “It’s alright, man. This place is a fucking extension of high school.”