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The two sat in camping chairs, their necks craned skyward as they searched for satellites. Mia spotted the first one, a steadily drifting pinprick of light miles high and free of the concept of a setting sun. It was probably doing a million things at once—measuring, relaying, spying—but to Mia, the satellite seemed placed in the sky to illustrate a mathematical perfection.
“Over the handle of the Big Dipper,” Mia said, pointing, but Dr. Samuelson—he said to call him Rob but she preferred not to—couldn’t spot the satellite at all, even after rubbing his glasses clean on the hem of his flannel shirt.
“Well,” Dr. Samuelson said, looking at Mia now and raising his eyebrows quickly, as though something had been settled, which Mia supposed was true. It was late, the fire was low, and Dr. Samuelson’s tent beckoned.
Mia had never slept with a professor before, nor anyone even near his age. She wasn’t nervous, though. Dr. Samuelson didn’t make her nervous. True, she had thought the other campsites and tents were awfully close when they’d first arrived. But the shared bottle of wine (hers) and the cannabis gummies (Dr. Samuelson’s) had pushed those campsites further into the darkness. If she and Dr. Samuelson made a little noise, so what.
Behind the tent rose forest. In front of her was the firepit, the picnic table, bear locker, Dr. Samuelson’s car, and then a paved campground road which ran parallel to a river whose name she could not remember. Dr. Samuelson said two men had drowned in the river earlier that month saving young kids who had fallen in. But the water here was more like a gentle creek, with a swimming hole that was just deep enough to jump into. She could hear the water through the darkness.
Mia and Dr. Samuelson had arrived around sundown. Every campsite they passed seemed to hold a family with four or five young kids. Mia had remarked that families were getting larger, but Dr. Samuelson had countered with a much more mundane explanation: hotels were too expensive for large families. He said it with a kind of gentleness that she liked. He explained things in class this way too, revealing simple explanations for overthought problems. Whenever he did so, Mia said ta-da in her head as Dr. Samuelson made the world a little more understandable.
In Dr. Samuelson’s seminar, Ecological Psychology—a graduate course that she, only a junior, had wormed her way into—Dr. Samuelson wore sport coats and basketball shoes. When he’d picked her up that morning at the dorms, he was in a faded orange T-shirt, hiking shorts and sandals. His late-model Honda CR-V was packed with camping gear and missing its spare. She’d crammed her new sleeping bag in the back seat beside boxes of term papers still to grade. Mia had no idea where the other three students who had dropped out of the trip would have sat. It made her feel like he’d exclusively asked her.
“And we’re off,” he’d said, starting the car.
He liked to drive with the windows down, as though air conditioning was a bad thing. His blowing hair seemed grayer, his beard shaggier, and his skin folded in ways it didn’t in class. It was the first time Mia had seen his forearms. She felt like she wasn’t spending the weekend with Dr. Samuelson but with Dr. Samuelson’s older, grizzlier (but still handsome) brother.
They were stuck in traffic all morning, but once over The Grapevine it had been pleasant enough: oil fields and almond groves, small towns with water towers and fruit stands, and then the hazy Sierras coming into view through the humidity of the heatwave. Dr. Samuelson played cassettes of African music by artists Mia had never heard of: Joe Mensah, Alex Konadu, The Ogyatanaa Show Band—all of it funky, with organs and two-bar bursts of brass, like chase-scene music from some last-century cop show. The feel of a cassette’s white cogs clasping around the tip of her pinky finger turned her on in a weird, inexplicable way.
“You have a lot of African music for a white guy,” she’d said, and he’d laughed. Mia could make the cassette’s tape peek out in a small bulge at the bottom. There was something sensuous about the shape. “You have any CDs?” she’d asked, when the music became a bit much.
He pointed to a compartment. She opened it. “Jesus.” More African music. The CDs felt briefly futuristic after having played with the ancient cassettes.
Dr. Samuelson started talking to her about the book he was working on that he wanted her to read portions of. The Motion of Bodies, or something like that, about physical, muscular motion being the essential, elemental something something something. The African music made it hard to concentrate on what he was explaining. And, anyway, her mind was on the other motion of bodies. Dr. Samuelson was in his late-fifties, if her extrapolations were correct. The crazy thing was that when they slept together tonight, the age difference would be the equivalent of her sleeping with someone not yet born.
“What are you thinking about?” he’d asked as she stared at the orange groves, thinking of how weird it was to contemplate sleeping with someone not yet born; waiting for them to grow up, mature, find you.
“Oranges,” she said, lying, then not.
He pulled off the road at a fruit stand and bought her a huge bag of oranges, the car still running. While he was out, she turned the music off and was glad he didn’t notice for the rest of the drive. They talked about school again, about politics, about movies. She liked that he was interested in her thoughts and opinions. But after another twenty miles, she wondered if he was really just interested in her generation. That is until—waiting in the line of cars at the gate to the national park—he’d gripped her upper leg, a tight grip, even shaking her leg a little, impressed, he said, with her leg muscles. This is how I’m going to be holding your ass tonight, he might as well have said. She reached over and did the same thing to his leg and caused him to brake, hard.
Now, nearly midnight, it was about to happen. Dr. Samuelson spread out the final embers with the fire-poking stick he seemed unusually pleased with. The flames were like transparent blue tongues: sometimes there, then disappearing, then reappearing, then no more. He held his hands over the fire pit. “Dry heat,” he said, like it was something rare.
Mia wondered what his warm hands would feel like touching her in places other than her upper leg. She imagined he would be tender; anything else seemed against his nature. Then again, she knew that some guys became completely different during sex. But maybe they’d just make out. Either way, it would be interesting.
Still leaning over the fire pit, Dr. Samuelson appeared haggard. She’d thought the wine and gummies had put any of her own reservations to bed, but the disquiet she’d felt when he pulled up in his cluttered car and she saw his mottled forearms, reemerged and squirmed a little. Mia didn’t really care how it went with Dr. Samuelson as long as it: a) satisfied her curiosity, and b) didn’t become something she regretted later. She imagined that a professor in his fifties would be grateful. Their affair might go on for a semester, little notes passed to her after class—“Mia, a word?”—quick fucks in his locked office, maybe. It would be interesting to see the tender underbelly of someone she admired, someone who charmed her, someone she wished were younger.
Dr. Samuelson brushed his teeth right there at the campsite, his headlamp making him look like a cave explorer. He didn’t even turn his back to her. He had brought a headlamp for her, too, and she put it on dutifully after pulling off a few long hairs from the elastic band. She could hear Dr. Samuelson behind her, gargling and then spitting as she walked to the restroom a hundred yards away. The light from her headlamp illuminated thousands of particles of campfire smoke. To Mia, the strong beam of light felt like the ancient Greek notion of sight—or no, more like a superpower. She was walking through a forest fire. She was walking through a volcanic explosion. Unscathed.
The bathroom looked like a tiny dark cottage. Her light fastened on a young man crouched with his back against the wood siding, a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in one hand, a plastic bag in the other. He shielded his face from her bright light.
“Sorry,” she said.
He shook his head no.
Inside the women’s end of the bathroom, Mia brushed her teeth and then flossed, her headlamp flooding the empty room with a wet light but never quite removing all the darkness scuttling behind her. She sniffed her shirt. It reeked of woodsmoke. She knew that woodsmoke would forever evoke memories of sex with Dr. Samuelson. Just as chlorine and Kahlúa was the scent of virginity lost, her freshman year.
The sick man wasn’t there when she walked out, though she could hear the sounds of his gastrointestinal suffering from the men’s side of the restroom. She walked quickly. She had taken off her underwear and bra in the bathroom to make the coming moment easier and she felt exposed and vulnerable out here in the darkness. None of the other campsites she passed had fires burning anymore or even lanterns on, and the woods that rose behind them spooked her a little with the density of their darkness. But Dr. Samuelson’s orange and gray tent glowed brightly, like the futuristic hatch to some underground complex. There was an inch of wine left in the bottle between their empty camping chairs and she drank it, despite having brushed, then put the empty bottle in the bear locker. She held her hands out over the coals to warm them up. A student of mine with great muscle tone but cold hands—no, that wouldn’t be her.
The tent’s zippers were terrifically loud, even when she tried to open them slowly, and made a sound that leaned more toward flatulence than seduction. Still outside, she turned off her headlamp and pulled it off her head, then unlaced her shoes and left them. She stepped into the orange glow of the tent, kneeled, turned.
Dr. Samuelson was lying in his sleeping bag, though it was opened along one side, waiting for her. The tent’s glow came from the headlamp still on Dr. Samuelson’s head, which threw a bright circle on the ceiling. His eyes were closed but rolling around beneath the lids. His lips parted. He was asleep.
Mia lay down beside him on her sleeping bag, blue, eighty dollars, good to minus ten degrees. It was about seventy degrees now. Dr. Samuelson’s face was softer lying down, but not exactly younger. On the far side of him lay a well-worn book of day hikes. Reading glasses peeked from a case resting on top. A wristwatch sat beside both. She imagined his bedside table at home looked like this.
Mia reached, tentatively. Dr. Samuelson’s warm exhalations passed over the ball of her hand as she squinted against the light of his headlamp. She found the power button and pressed. Darkness. She felt like she’d turned him off, or killed him somehow. He sighed, stirred, and she was relieved. It would be better in the dark, anyway. He would say her name and it would begin. Her first professor. She should get a condom from her backpack. She sat up. Dr. Samuelson began to snore.
Mia unzipped the tent door slowly, then slipped her bare feet into her shoes, leaving the laces untied. She replayed Dr. Samuelson’s flirtations, or what she’d thought were his flirtations: how he always said her name with a kind of delight when she visited him at office hours, that squeeze of her leg—was he perhaps only thinking of how well she’d do as a hiker?, that smile on his face when she’d come down to his car this morning—was it simply because they were getting out of the city? Then again, the drive here had been long and he was probably just tired. Hadn’t he said cannabis was good for putting him to sleep?
Mia craved a shower. It was such an archaic instinct that it felt foolish she had to put up with it, especially as she didn’t feel guilty. Still, she had learned to be attentive to these kinds of primal reactions and what they said. So, okay, she might have made a mistake about Dr. Samuelson. And right now some ancient instinct in her wanted water to wash away the awkwardness of the last ten minutes, even if she was the only one aware of it. Okay, again. Fine.
Mia walked down to the river with the name she couldn’t remember, to the watering hole where large boulders lay upon the granite bedrock, the water sounding exactly the same now as when she’d come down here to explore while Dr. Samuelson had driven off for firewood. People had been swimming then and the spot had been filled with kids and laughter. Now the pool was hers.
Mia undressed and skinny-dipped, the cold unexpected and making her gasp. But then it was bearable, just. There was no wind. She found where the water was deepest and stood on her toes; the surface lapped against the bottom of her jaw. She went under and swam a half-dozen strokes to the other side and climbed out, but it was just as cold out of the water, so she went back in and floated on her back, rubbing the water from her eyes and looking at the way the trees raked the stars. She felt naked in some kind of new way she didn’t have a name for yet, a peaceful way that didn’t lead to something else. In class, Dr. Samuelson had talked about how trees communicate down at the roots, passing sugars along fungal filaments too small to see. She wondered what these trees were saying now, and if they could sense her, floating here.
She saw the glow, like a firefly, out of the corner of her eye. Her feet sank and touched loose pebbles on the granite bottom. “Someone there?” she asked.
“Sorry.” A male voice. The light she’d seen, a cigarette’s end, glowed again.
“How long have you been there?” she asked.
She swam to the other side, climbed out beside a large boulder and dressed quickly in her jeans and shirt, even though she was wet.
“Are you decent?” the voice asked, coming closer now, younger sounding. Something about the question stopped her from running up the bank. The wholesomeness of it.
“Yeah,” she said.
The man walked around the edge of the boulder. She could see he wasn’t much: thin, short. More of a boy. Too young to be smoking.
She wrung the water from her hair and felt it flop cold and heavy on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said again, and squatted not far from her. “I coughed…so you’d know I was here.”
“No you didn’t,” Mia said. She sat down. She could feel the faint heat of day still coming off the granite. “What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“Listening to the water.”
“How old are you?”
“You sneak out of your parent’s tent?“
“I’m camping with my older brother. He’s sick. He drank the water here. You shouldn’t let any of this water get into your mouth.”
“I didn’t,” Mia said.
“It looked like you did,” the boy said. “Before you started floating on your back. My brother’s had the shits all day.” The boy took another drag on his cigarette. “Your dad seems pretty cool,” he said, after a long silence when only the water spoke. “Most kids don’t laugh at their parents’ jokes. Bet he doesn’t know you like to skinny-dip, though.”
“No,” Mia said, picturing Dr. Samuelson. “He has no idea.”
Had things progressed as she’d imagined, she would have been pulling a condom down over Dr. Samuelson’s unknown vintage—or maybe he needed to take a pill to get hard first and he’d be using that time wisely. She felt a kind of relief to be here instead, sitting on the granite, dark trees above. She would have regretted sleeping with Dr. Samuelson. Not the sex, but how knowing him that way would have taken away the appeal of the unknown about him. No again. Why be kind? The sex would have been awful, an old guy like him. He would have disappointed her. It was bad enough that she had seen him asleep.
Mia fell back on her pretense for coming with Dr. Samuelson to Sequoia: hiking. She kind of wanted to trek to the waterfall he’d mentioned. She wanted to see a marmot. She wanted to marvel at the Sequoiadendron giganteum, biggest wood in the world—and only that, a tree, not a puerile metaphor. She wanted to walk through the forests, around meadows, to revel in the ordinary motion of her body. They wanted the same thing after all, maybe, she and Dr. Samuelson. Still, it might have been interesting.
“There’s a satellite,” the boy said, pointing, but she looked at him instead. His hair was shaggy. There was the tease of a mustache, or maybe it was acne—there was little moon to see by.
“I saw a bunch of them earlier,” Mia said, resting herself gently against the granite for warmth. She looked up at the stars.
“I’m going to study astronomy in college,” the boy said.
“That’s what I thought I’d study, too,” Mia said. “But I got a D on my Calc II midterm and dropped out. I’m studying psychology instead. It’s fuzzier. Another one,” Mia said, pointing.
This satellite was moving much more slowly than the others she’d seen; it seemed almost still. She wondered how many geostationary satellites were up there pretending to be stars. Mia realized that if, hypothetically, she slept with this boy, there would be far less of an age difference than between herself and Dr. Samuelson. By at least a factor of five.
“You have an incredible body,” the boy said.
“Thanks,” Mia said. “You have a nice voice.”
They counted twenty satellites between them where they lay, ten feet apart. Then the boy stood up and said good night, literally said ‘good night’, and went to check on his sick brother. Mia lay there and listened to the water and now and again the sound of it kind of stopped each time she began to nod off.
She walked back to the tent. Dr. Samuelson was still asleep. She was briefly naked while she changed out of her damp clothes and into fresh underwear and a shirt, but Dr. Samuelson didn’t wake, despite the swoosh of the nylon tent as she brushed against it. He wore yellow earplugs. She reached over him and picked up his hiking book, then turned on her headlamp and, after browsing for a few minutes, found the entry for the campsite where they were and the name of the water in which she’d briefly swum: The Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Such a grand name for a little creek. If two people really had drowned in it, she knew it wasn’t here, where the water was kind to all but those who drank from it.