Jeremy stood in the corner of the school hall, shuffling awkwardly in time to the music. He didn’t know the song, and he hated himself for not knowing, for not being able to mouth along to the words like the other kids at the dance. He snatched and twisted at the cuff of his jacket – a ridiculous second-hand velvet smoking jacket that he’d begged his parents to buy him for his fifteenth birthday. This was the first time he’d worn it outside the house, and he wished he hadn’t.
He looked like a fucking idiot, and he just wanted to go home.
But his parents wouldn’t be arriving to pick him up until half past ten, and he didn’t want to call them any earlier in case they realised what a maladjusted freak they’d brought up, so he stood against the wall and watched the circles of fluttering dancers move through the disco lights and fog of the smoke machine.
Beside him, a couple were forcing themselves against the gym-mats in the corner. One of them had slipped a hand down the other’s pants, and their faces were locked together in an ostentatious kiss. The air stank of sweat and hormones, and Jeremy felt sick.
He pushed his way out of the hall, and fell to his knees among the trees and bushes that lined the school fence, where he threw up the McDonald’s he’d had for dinner. It splashed and bubbled on the dust, and when he was finished he leaned back and wiped his mouth with the corner of the jacket.
There were warm tears streaming down his face.
He crawled away from the puddle of sick and started to walk away from the school hall. He’d find somewhere to stay and hide until ten thirty, somewhere dark and alone. In a sudden flash of anger he tore off his jacket and threw it into a bin, punching it down and burying it beneath chip wrappers and empty coke bottles.
The girl was standing outside the front of the library, leaning against a tree and smoking a cigarette. Her hair was black and streaked with purple, and she was the most beautiful girl that Jeremy had ever seen.
‘Hey,’ she said, stubbing the cigarette out against the bark of the tree. ‘Who are you?’
Jeremy felt the familiar prickling flush of embarrassment flow up the back of his neck, and he looked down at his feet – and then immediately back up at the girl’s face, hoping she wouldn’t notice that he was wearing school shoes instead of sneakers. ‘Jeremy,’ he said, too quietly, and then repeated himself too loudly.
The girl cocked her head to the side, looking past Jeremy. ‘You go to this school, huh?’
He nodded. ‘How about you?’
She shook her head. ‘Nah,’ she said, and started to walk off beside the library.
Jeremy stood still, paralysed by anxiety and the overwhelming excitement of having spoken to a girl, watching her go until she turned and beckoned.
He looked around, in case there was someone else behind him.
But he was alone on the lawn, and she was only looking at him.
So he walked towards her, and fell in step beside her.
As they walked across the asphalt of the handball courts and on to the grass of the oval, the dull throb of basslines from the dance gave way to silence and the rustling of tree branches in the spring night breeze.
‘There’s a farm,’ said Jeremy, ‘attached to the school. We study agriculture for the HSC.’
The girl seemed uninterested, and Jeremy panicked that he was losing whatever connection he had imagined there was between them.
‘There’s a dam,’ he added, and she stopped.
‘Really?’ she asked, turning to face him. He noticed that she had two piercings in one ear and none in the other, and he wondered why. ‘Can we swim in it?’
Jeremy thought about the times he’d been down the dam during the day, its grey-brown water slurping and sucking against the corpse-coloured mud of the bank. He imagined the feel of fish and crustaceans against his skin, of weeds dragging him below the surface, of a teacher or the groundskeeper discovering that he’d been trespassing…
And then the girl smiled at him, and he smiled back. ‘Yeah,’ he said, and she took his hand.
They climbed over the big wire gate and moved quietly past the toolshed and the greenhouse. Jeremy stared straight ahead, breathing as quietly and as shallowly as he could. In the distance, there were the sounds of cattle or sheep moving in one of the lower paddocks.
The bright moon cast long deep shadows as they walked in silence towards the long knot of trees and bushes at the edge of the dam. Jeremy picked up a branch from the ground and used it to clear a hole in the dark tangle of leaves and thorns and branches for them to go through.
The girl went first, and he followed, and they were standing at the edge of the dam. There was a muddy smell in the air, of things decaying and forgotten, and the dun water yawned away into the blackness of the night.
Little tips and crests of moonlight rippled across its surface, and the girl looked excitedly at Jeremy. ‘Are you ready?’ she asked.
She stripped down until she was standing there in a grey bra and black underpants, her bare feet sinking slightly into the mud. Jeremy turned away, blushing, feeling like a perve or a rapist, like he wasn’t supposed to be there. He concentrated on a fallen leaf: most of it had rotted away or been eaten, leaving a lacey outline of bone-coloured veins.
The girl’s hand brushed against his shoulder. ‘You coming?’ she asked softly, and he nodded quickly.
His heart was stuttering in his chest as he unbuttoned his shirt, and his legs trembled as he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his trousers. His hands moved to cover his forearms, and he hoped the silvery-pink scars weren’t visible in the moonlight.
The girl was smiling at him, and raised a hand to cup his face. Her fingers were cold and dry, and for a brief, horrible second he thought she was going to kiss him; so he moved his head away to avoid the shame of admitting that he didn’t know how to do it.
The girl’s smile faded.
‘Don’t you like me?’ she asked, as she took a step into the dam, the wine-dark water lapping at her thin ankles. Her feet were still visible, pale grey blurs under the surface.
Jeremy shook his head. ‘No, it’s not that.’
He could feel tears forming in the corners of his eye, and he blinked quickly to hide them.
‘Come on then,’ said the girl, wading forward, up to her knees, up to her waist, up to her breasts, before diving almost silently under the water, like a flower furling its petals in the night. Jeremy watched and waited for her head to break the surface, but after ten minutes there was only the sound of the leaves rustling above him.
The ice-white moon’s reflection shivered on the surface of the dam, and Jeremy stepped forward to join her.