I nod more vigorously than I expected to. My heart speeds up like I’m doing something illicit.
“I’ve seen pictures and videos, but what’s it like to actually be in the water? Is it like taking a bath in a giant tub?”
“Sort of,” he says slowly, considering. “No, I take it back. Taking a bath is relaxing. Being in the ocean is scary. It’s wet and cold and salty and deadly.”
That’s not what I was expecting. “You hate the ocean?”
He’s grinning now, warming to his topic. “I don’t hate it. I respect it.” He holds up a single finger. “Respect. It’s Mother Nature at her finest—awesome, beautiful, impersonal, murderous. Think about it: All that water and you could still die of thirst. And the whole point of waves is to suck your feet from under you so that you drown faster. The ocean will swallow you whole and burp you out and not notice you were even there.”
“Oh my God, you’re scared of it!”
“We haven’t even gotten to great white sharks or saltwater crocodiles or Indonesian needlefish or—”
“OK, OK,” I say, laughing and holding up my hands for him to stop.
“It’s no joke,” he says with mock seriousness. “The ocean will kill you.” He winks at me. “It turns out that Mother Nature is a lousy mom.”
I’m too busy laughing to say anything.
“So, what else do you want to know?”
“After that? Nothing!”
“Come on. I’m a fount of knowledge.”
“OK, do one of your crazy tricks for me.”
He’s on his feet in a blink and begins assessing the room critically. “There’s not enough room. Let’s go out—” He stops himself midsentence. “Crap, Maddy, I’m sorry.”
“Stop,” I say. I stand up and hold a hand out. “Do not feel sorry for me.” I say this harshly, but it’s too important a point. I couldn’t stand pity coming from him.
He flicks his rubber band, nods once, and lets it go. “I can do a one-armed handstand.”
He steps away from the wall and simply falls forward until he’s upside down on his hands. It’s such a graceful and effortless movement that I’m momentarily filled with envy. What’s it like to have such complete confidence in your body and what it will do?
“That’s amazing,” I whisper.
“We’re not in church,” he whisper-shouts back, voice slightly strained from being upside down.
“I don’t know,” I say. “It feels like I should be quiet.”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he closes his eyes, slowly removes his left hand from the floor, and holds it out to the side. He’s almost perfectly still. The quiet bubbling of the pond and his slightly heavier breathing are the only sounds in the room. His T-shirt falls up and I can see the hard muscles of his stomach. The skin is the same warm, golden tan. I pull my eyes away.
“OK,” I say, “you can stop now.”
He’s upright again before I can blink.
“What else can you do?”
He rubs his hands together and grins back at me.
One backflip later he sits back down against the wall and closes his eyes.
“So, why outer space first?” he asks.
I shrug. “I want to see the world, I guess.”
“Not what most people mean by that,” he says, smiling.
I nod and close my eyes as well. “Do you ever feel—” I begin, but then the door opens and Carla bustles in to rush him out.
“You didn’t touch, right?” she asks, arms akimbo.
We both open our eyes and stare at each other. All at once I’m hyperaware of his body and mine.
“There was no touching,” Olly confirms, his eyes never leaving my face. Something in his tone makes me blush hard, and heat travels a slow wave across my face and chest.
Spontaneous combustion is a real thing. I’m certain of it.
Before Carla arrives the next morning I spend exactly thirteen minutes in bed convinced that I am getting sick. It takes her exactly six minutes to un-convince me. She takes my temperature, blood pressure, heart and pulse rates before declaring that I am simply lovesick.
“Classic symptoms,” she says.
“I’m not in love. I can’t be in love.”
“And why not?”
“What would be the point?” I say, throwing my hands up. “Me in love would be like being a food critic with no taste buds. It would be like being a color-blind painter. It would be like—”
“Like skinny-dipping by yourself.”