Tempted to oblige,
shyly or otherwise
As a student, I was not entirely unsuspecting, with a burning intensity under the surface, a blur of anticipation. On the verge of waking up from lifelong introversion and slumbers, I wanted to make a bit of money and travel, which led to a summer job at a holiday park on the coast, with steep and twisting cliff paths, but also dunes and beaches. This national park seemed quite right for a dreamy and insecure person, eager to learn his way in the world.
Working at the front desk, I met a lot of guests who came to get keys, fill out forms, and ask me a range of questions, making me guess, bluff, and blunder at first. But I was good at masking blushes of shame and all sorts. The office mood was professional in a homey and easygoing way.
I was not quite conscious yet of desires deep inside me. To some extent that must have been a form of self-protection—or divine intervention—for as long as it lasted. No matter how normal most longings were, a degree of indulgence could be too much of an avalanche.
On my days off I’d walk to a beach early before the tourists would, and one morning I was the very first on the dune path, or so I thought for a while, in the most mystical peace and freshness. A soft breeze in the pre-heat sunshine made me and my skin ultra susceptible, but I had no idea what to. A surmise was lying low for as long as it could.
At a languid pace, I crossed the sand slopes. The soles of my feet were sending stimuli to the rest of my body, up to my neck.
The water was rather cold. I just paddled around the low surf, letting the sea lick my ankles. The coolness made me aware of the promising warmth in the air, as a vast caress. My senses were extending to extremes.
When I took my shirt off and lay down, I happened to glance toward the dunes, where a man came walking down, so at ease and free, so naked and one with the elements. Ignoring me, or absent-minded, or immune to human presence? Could the man be an arrogant soloist, or a stranded creature of nature?
Halfway down the beach, he began trotting on the lightest feet. Passing by at medium speed, without any sign of perceiving me, he dived into the first high wave.
To my eyes, the shapes and lines of the natural athlete appeared clearly, also underwater. When the tips of his bottom showed, the sun made them shine, even more naked than before. The splashes were full of glistening droplets that I tasted on my face. Agile like a kid, he flew onto a wave crest and let himself crash, to stand up and stagger and wipe his wild hair. He left his hands on his neck, dropped his head backward, and closed his eyes in the golden light.
All shown to me in slow-motion: the keen surge ran against his lean waist, pulled back, and returned to swirl around his hips and abs. In the lull before a new wave, the sea sank and teased a little more, showing the stretched, wet, and deepest valley of his belly, with neatly trimmed hair. The water rose and swelled and fell again.
Swept ashore, he caught his breath and stood erect. He walked up the beach, all of his tallness dripping these crystal sparkles. After climbing the sand slope, his backside muscles firm and supple, he vanished into a dune dale.
Soon the first holidaymakers loomed up, lugging chairs and chock-full bags. As naive as bold, I followed the footprints of the strong and limber legs, to a one-man’s land. Nobody else left the paths. Did I miss a no-trespassing sign? Would I ignore it wilfully for a good cause?
At some distance off the public track, I saw him adjusting the rope of a simple tent, pitched on a low dune. Between freezing and tarrying, afraid that reality might soon prove to be an illusion, I did not sneak over to ask him (indicating interest, not suspicion): “have you got a license or permission for this?”v
He looked all confidence and independence. And what was underneath: anger or a haughty lack of human interest? He’d probably come here for the sole purpose of being on his own—due to something like a burnout? A personal crisis? Or he was a scientist, doing biological and empirical research. I didn’t see any equipment, though, except a notebook and pen on a towel. Was he a famous writer in hiding?
The mystery was irresistible. How long could one stay here? Maybe he had a friend in high places. Ha, why not CIA!? Look where I was prying! In any case, it was evident that he could do without me. Not that he chased me off, but his raw silence came down to the same thing.
Meanwhile, my eyes glued themselves to that body in motion, even when I told them to behave, for God’s sake! Good thing that he was reducing me to thin air, busy with practical matters like pouring a bottle of water into a saucepan and putting it on a primitive gas-bottle cooker.
This couldn’t be a sweetly weird way of being lonely, could it? A down-to-earth attempt at being civil? Intentions can change. No, in my daring dreams! I moved on, acting ‘unaffected’. No offense, mate. But my heart and hormones would stay on fire for hours.
In the early summer evening, I roamed toward his camp again, keeping my reverent distance, which didn’t diminish his beauty and nudity and vigor. If he realized that a weirdo like me might pass by, there was no trace of self-consciousness. I did curse myself for sneaking around while his freedom of mind and body looked supreme. I wouldn’t be so dense as to get near him again, not even awfully good and patient, devoid of star-daze.
Several times at dawn and in the evening, I would return for a walk and a swim, when I could handle the ground-breaking liberty, when I was dead certain that no one else would be there. But I’d never address him. For years I’d been in such a thick shell, that I couldn’t believe this as it was.
After a few days, he entered reception and saw me at the desk. His demeanor didn’t reveal if he recognized me at all. Was he carefree, or callous, or did he come prepared, knowing that I worked here? There was no smile, no indication of a plan.
By that time I felt quite comfy, or even experienced, genuinely enjoying the job, but right then my mind went, as if pretending he came to see me. To keep my head and legs together, I clutched the edge of the desk.
There was no line and he didn’t hesitate, he came to me directly—not to a co-worker—and said, “While I’m camping out in the dunes, can I have my mail delivered here? I’ll just come and pick it up regularly.”
What was he thinking, stuck in the nineteenth century? How rude or ludicrous could one be—in my stupid eyes, as if he’d rejected me. Was this a bashful tactic of his to connect in some way? To break the freaky and shy pride of myself (or the other way around)?
What was I thinking, instead of grabbing the miracle chance with both hands: what kind of mail is he expecting? Are we in a Brontë novel, or is he the CEO’s son, who thinks he can afford weird privileges? It could even be a trendy back-to-basics retreat. Was he deprived of manners, or blessed with a lack of social dogmas, or was I the colossal problem?
A brand new feature in me told myself: hey, take it easy—literally! This is a rare gift, why be fussy about stupid rules, what’s wrong with ‘unusual’? Embrace it and win him over! Go deliver the old-fashioned mail yourself!
But despite the oversized exclamation marks, that new me was premature. With too many thoughts and weight, my poor common sense had a meltdown.
He gave no information about his life in the wild. No please or grimacing apology came with his request. Because he had a perfectly important and poignant reason? So it was not outrageous at all? No rehearsal for the latest reality show on TV?
He was wearing only shorts—threadbare from poverty or fashion—and I was glaring. One step away now, a chunk of him looked so ‘tangible’, sharply close by, throbbing with energy, yet unreachable. Was he? Did he have no idea of my turmoil? He could be using me shrewdly, or he was deaf and blind to human interchange.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said.
And it was no euphemism for “no.” I truly needed time to solve an enormous unsureness, which gave him time to solve it for me! If he had a grain of talent for persuasion, I would have ‘succumbed’.
His bare forearms rested on the desktop. If I laid mine down too, we could touch casually. His hands looked sensitive alright, if roughened by work and weather. Where did I stare, and for how long? At the swimmer’s arms and shoulders. The smooth chest with soft nipples, to be licked ever so gently. Spooky goodness me, when he leaned forward, what was pressing against the desk front?
In this true story defying belief and me, why for God’s sake didn’t I take the time and tell him with a comradely accomplice wink: “I’ll see what I can do?” It’s still beyond me. Why didn’t I offer to take his mail to him? It would have made beautiful sense. He would not come for nothing each time there was no mail. No strings attached, either! Slowly, one thing could even lead to the next, never mind how. I’d take a finger and taste it forever.
He did ask again, but not with a charm or gorgeous force of logic that could break my state of numbness and insanity, apparently, since I turned his request down. And he didn’t demand to see my boss, possibly dreading a scene or double rejection, or my stubborn stone face conveyed misplaced authority.
He thundered off.
And his wounded pride: I could have healed it, kissed well.
If there is an omnipotent God and a devil, were they teaching me the depth of regret, or of protection?
I was a mulish student.
Arno Bohlmeijer is a poet and novelist, writing in English and Dutch, winner of a PEN America Grant 2021, published in six countries (US: Houghton Mifflin), also in two dozen Reviews and Journals, and in Universal Oneness: an Anthology of Magnum Opus Poems from around the World, 2019.