Theoretical understanding only goes so far. Each year on a chilly Monday morning in early November, after two months in the classroom, I load the students into a bus and take them for five days to a field station up north. On good years, the sun dapples our path through the trees, and we eat lunch on the pier in fleece and long underwear. But most years we're slogging through rain and snow, our feet and hands aching with cold. I've thought about moving the week up into September, when we might expect better weather, but it doesn't fit the curriculum. Besides, those few who will actually enter the profession need to be tough.
A light snow was falling at seven a.m. when the students arrived in the school parking lot. They laughed and joked, bundled in their down parkas, carrying well-used outdoor gear. Isaac appeared, somehow looking cool and collected in an ancient canvas coat and old-man galoshes, a worn duffel slung over one shoulder. I would later find out he'd spent a week scouring thrift stores, but at the moment I saw him, he looked like a hip version of a peddler from our shared ancestral heritage. I wondered if six days and nights in close proximity would tarnish the gleam I felt every time I saw him.
The field trip is where my class coalesces. Whether by the end of the year they love or hate me, for the most part they like each other. After fifteen years, I could predict the moment when they melded into a single unit, usually pitted against me. The worse the weather, the quicker that moment came.
I drove north, ignoring the prattle behind me. Occasionally my attention would be caught by the promise of gossip about my colleagues, but invariably it was nothing more exciting than who passed back papers or tests or graded too hard. After years of faculty meetings, I knew my colleagues far too well for any of that to be news. A small, petty part of me hoped to hear something damning about Geoffrey Dunn, but if there was dirt to dish, I didn't hear it that morning.
Every few miles, my eyes strayed to the rearview mirror. Isaac sat in a seat by himself, curled against the window asleep. Students at Saint Genevieve's are discouraged from taking jobs, but some work nights, and I wondered if he was one. Or maybe he'd been out partying with the boys. A pretty young man like him wasn't likely to live the celibate existence of a middle-aged academic. The thought of him tangled in sweaty sheets with another undergraduate was both exciting and disheartening. I turned my attention back to the road.
The college pays for us to stay a week in the only winterized building of a summer camp. It's a great wooden dining hall with thick-paned windows and an industrial kitchen, half of which we devote to a field lab and the other half to cooking, most of which is done by committee. In the back of the cavernous dining room, we set up cots for men on one side of the room, for women on the other, with me a reluctant chaperone between. The space is too public for romance, but I suspect every year some quiet coupling goes on in the woods outside. No one has come back pregnant, and I refuse to be more vigilant than I am.
That first night I laid on my cot, listening to the creak of the old building and the breathing of twenty students, trying to distinguish the one. To call the old, drafty dining hall heated is an exaggeration. The pipes might not have been freezing, but the tip of my nose peeking out from my sleeping bag was. I tried not to imagine Isaac on his cot, not twenty feet away, but I was overcome by the image of his lean body cocooned in the slithery nylon bag. My cock thickened, and I was paralyzed with excitement, embarrassment, and the giddy impulse to masturbate there in that cavernous, echoey space, surrounded by sleeping students. I grasped the familiar column and tried a few strokes, but the scrape of my hand against the bag seemed to reverberate throughout the hall. I crept out of my bag and stole to the men's room, where I shut myself in a stall, imagined Isaac's full lips around my shaft, and brought myself to shuddering completion.
Beginning on Thursday morning, the next to last day of our field trip, I always have the students participate in a twenty-four-hour study of zooplankton migration within the nearby lake. Zooplankton are the tiny creatures that swim around gobbling up phytoplankton, the microscopic "plants" of the water column. At any given time, zooplankton move up and down within the lake, looking for food and avoiding predators. Our twenty-four-hour study gives the students plenty of experience with the nets and traps we use to catch zooplankton, and provides samples that take us through a month of indoor labs, after which the data analysis is yet another test of their abilities.
The sampling itself is grueling, particularly for those unlucky enough to end up on a cold November night in a small boat in the middle of the lake. At the beginning of the week I post a sheet. They can sign up in pairs for a two-hour slot, and first thing, I pencil myself in to work with some unlucky sleepy undergraduate from two to four in the morning, the worst shift. The right to sign up is earned by good deeds, since students can't until they've worked on both a cooking and a cleanup crew. Those quick to volunteer for kitchen duty end up sampling zooplankton in the relative warmth of the afternoon. Those more reluctant to serve their classmates put their names to increasingly later spots. Invariably, the dotted line beneath my name is the last to fill.
Early Tuesday morning, I gathered the three students who had already met the requirement and handed them the pen and permission to sign themselves into any shift. The first two didn't surprise me. Sue Taylor, a nervous blonde woman with an annoying habit of snapping her gum, and her more laid-back friend Jane Good, who wore her long brown hair in a ponytail covered by a Cubs ball cap, had both worked in my lab for two years. They were my most dependable and hardest working employees. I wasn't surprised to find they'd earned the right to sign up first. Together they scarfed up the prime spot, the daylight slot opposite mine. Jane passed the pen to Isaac with a lopsided grin. He nodded solemnly and glanced at me, his expression blank except for the glint of amusement in his eyes. My heart rate sped as I watched him quickly scrawl his name. He handed back my pen with a wink. My mouth dried as he sauntered away.
Thursday dawned cold and clear. I woke early and tiptoed in my stockinged feet to the kitchen to start the coffee. While it brewed, I stood at the window, staring out at the lake, hoping I could believe the weather reports that predicted more of the same throughout the day and into the night. In a small boat on a cold lake in the middle of the night, rain and snow can be punishing.
I heard footsteps behind me, and Isaac stood beside me, his gaze also out the window. The morning sun lit his soft curls like a dark halo. He smelled of toothpaste and musty sleeping bag. It was all I could do to stand rigid beside his wild beauty.
"Shouldn't you be sleeping?" I whispered. "We have a late night tonight."
He turned to me with a grin. "Could say the same to you."
The golden lights glowing from deep in his irises left me speechless. I tried to look away but found myself staring instead at the pink swell of his lower lip. His mouth opened, and I had a glimpse of teeth and tongue.
I drew breath, recalling myself. I had no business standing in a cold kitchen with hot thoughts about this young man, a student, who was little more than half my age. The pressure in my groin was entirely inappropriate. I turned and strode to the coffee urn.
With my back to him, I cleared my throat, determined to respond only to his words and not to the invitation in his eyes. "I want to make sure the first sampling shift goes well."
He chuckled. "You worry too much."
"Perhaps." I poured coffee, the first sip hot enough to burn my tongue. "You can never be too careful."
I heard the clink of a coffee cup as he took one down from the cupboard. I looked up as he neared.
"But if you don't take chances, you never know what you're missing."
We clearly weren't talking about class anymore. I started to speak but stopped as the door swung open and a bleary-eyed Jane stumbled in. I stepped away from Isaac and left the kitchen, accompanied only by the pounding of my heart.
I was already awake, staring into the dark when my watch beeped. In the bathroom I gazed into the wavy metal surface that served as a mirror. Rubbing my five-day growth of stubble, I regretted not bringing a razor. Usually I let myself go scruffy in an effort at humanizing my image with the students. I contemplated the dark mat of bristles, vaguely disturbed by the smattering of salt amid the pepper. In the last few years I'd almost convinced myself that the gray streaks at my temples conferred authority and made me look distinguished. It was harder to believe at one in the morning, in the bleak light of the camp bathroom, as I was about to spend a few hours in the company of a spectacularly attractive young man.
"Like what you see?" I jumped at the sound. Isaac seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
"Not really." I twisted the faucets and splashed water on my face.
Isaac leaned a hip against the second sink and watched me. "The beard's kind of sexy. Gives you a rugged look."
I snorted into my towel as I dried my face. "I'll keep that in mind."
Isaac's shoulders lifted in an elegant shrug. His own face looked smooth. I wanted to reach out and run my hand across it. Obviously he'd not only brought a razor but used it at ought-nothing in the morning. That thought sent a shiver of excitement through me.
The air between us thickened. My cock pulsed with possibility. Isaac leaned toward me. I cleared my throat and stepped back.
"I'll get us a thermos of coffee. You like it with cream?"
With a grin, Isaac let the inadvertent double entendre settle between us. His smile widened. "Yeah, bring some sugar packets too. I saved cookies from dinner. I'll go get them and meet you down at the dock."
I watched the door for a long moment after he left, wondering how the hell I was going to resist him.