Graduation Ch. 01

bymember9458©

Caleb's face seemed to turn; different from his earlier blanch, like a bad memory had suddenly overcome him.

Penny's mood soured in kind. "God, I really don't know how to shut up and be grateful."

"No no, it's okay—"

"I mean, I know you! You're not gonna binge drink and wrap your car around a six year old boy! But there's a reason why this is the law, and I don't want to...you know." Penny couldn't bring herself to say 'You have a fake I.D. and I'm letting you get away with it even though I shouldn't,' lest she say it too loud in her excitement-slash-heart-crushing panic.

"That's really..." Caleb's head was buried in his hands, his thumbs rubbing his sinuses. "You know what? You're right; I shouldn't be here, and I don't wanna get you in trouble." He stood up. "Can we go somewhere else and talk for a little while?"

Penny relaxed a little at this suggestion. "You're okay to drive?"

"I mean, I should be in about an hour, but we really don't have to drive, do we?"

* * * * *

Penny blamed the day for not remembering. Just a short walk from Silver Spoons was a Barnes and Noble megastore with a Starbucks inside -- their Barnes and Noble. With Caleb taking to Pride and Prejudice against all odds, he and Penny needed a de facto classroom for an hour or two every Saturday to discuss the week's reading and go over assignments. The B&N was quiet, comfortable, had good coffee, and provided just enough distraction through its DVD/Blu-Ray section whenever they needed a break. (It was during one of these side jaunts that inspired Caleb to espouse the virtues of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, buying her a copy of Thor to get her back on track. "Call it a 'thank you' gift," he said. Months later she was lined up for Civil War dressed as Captain America, and that Monday Caleb came in ten minutes early for a way-too-spirited argument about the Sokovia Accords.)

So whatever weighed on Caleb's mind, it seemed right that they talk about it at their usual table over coffee -- iced, half-caff caramel macchiato for him, hot and black for her, if only so she could feel more sober. "My treat," Penny said, digging into her purse.

"You sure? You're the one who had the bad day. All I did was take a tough final."

"My day's already better," she said.

The usual table was tucked away at the corner of the bookstore café, a quiet little two-seater nook that barely got any traffic during a busy Saturday afternoon, much less an hour from closing on Thursday. Once they sat down, Penny took a long sip of her beverage, as much of it as she could stand, so that the bitter taste could pull open her eyes and the heat could loosen up her chest, and let out a satisfied sigh after she swallowed. "So," she asked, "what's going on?"

Caleb played with his straw, stirring his drink around for a few seconds. "Okay, well, we agree that the guy who was talking to you earlier was a total jerk, right?"

"Yeah."

"But if he never talked to you, he never would have gotten anywhere anyway, right?"

"Right..." Penny couldn't see where he was going. "But so what? The way he behaves, it's not like he deserves to go home with anybody."

"Exactly," said Caleb. "But...okay, I guess what I'm saying is, if I see a stranger, I like the way she looks, and I wanna, uh, get to know her better, what's the right way to behave?"

Penny wasn't quite sure he heard that correctly. "For you?"

Caleb gave her a tentative nod.

"I...I think you could just introduce yourself, honestly. I mean, I'm assuming we're talking about a, uh, casual relationship, right?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, so yeah, you just go up, compliment her, politely introduce yourself, and ask if she wants some company. If she does, see where it goes from there; find out her interests, maybe ask her to dance. If not, just wish her a good night and cut bait. You're always better off finding someone else who's actually interested in you, rather than wearing a person down." Penny leaned in for emphasis. "And just FYI? I promise you, there's always going to be someone else."

Caleb nodded, understanding, appreciative as ever.

For Sober Penny, that probably would have been enough. Drunk Penny, however, was sure Caleb could read the utter confusion in her voice, and immediately moved to explain herself. "I mean, I'm surprised you'd even ask me that," she said, "because let's be honest, you could walk into a room and blind girls would throw themselves at you."

Caleb chuckled. "Most of the ones who have are, like, aggressive, you know? I like chicks who know what they want, but..."

"There's 'I'm into you,' and then there's 'You're into me, you just don't know it.'"

"Kinda, yeah, but they also just pile it on. This one girl in my study hall passed me a note once that -- look, I don't know how to censor it without losing the insanity. It said 'I'll let you choke me while you shove your cock up my ass.'"

Penny's jaw dropped; she could've sworn she felt her eyeballs bulge against her polycarbonate lenses.

"Yeah! I mean that's not hot, that's freaking weird, you know? And that's like an isolated incident, but I get a similar vibe from everyone else that tries to get with me, like..." Caleb scrunched his eyes shut, another thing he did when his vocabulary was failing him. "It's like they're just in it to say they had sex with me, and not because they actually like me. I don't know why that's so uncomfortable when it's every guy's dream to have women beating down their door, but here we are I guess."

To Penny, it almost sounded like...

...like...

...No. No way. That can't be...should I ask? I'm gonna ask. God help me.

"Can I ask you something?" Penny looked around before leaning in. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to, it might be a little personal," she explained.

"Please," said Caleb, "How much more personal can this get?"

Again Penny went for the low voice. "You asked me how to pick up girls, you mention that you're not into the girls who usually go after you...but surely there was someone that, you know...?"

Caleb shook his head.

Penny dropped her voice even lower, to a near whisper: "Had sex with you?"

"That's what I'm saying. I'm still a virgin."

Penny didn't know what answer she was expecting, but she was thankful not to have a mouth full of hot liquid at that point.

"Yeah, I know." Caleb was responding to the face she must have been making. "Can't you tell from the promise ring or my unhealthy obsession with Dungeons and Dragons?"

"I'm so sorry! I honestly didn't expect to hear that!"

"No no, it's cool. Actually, I tried to lose it. At a pool party last summer, there was this girl...actually, this might be TMI, I don't wanna—"

"If you feel like you have to tell it, I'm listening."

"Okay...so the team hooked me up with this chick. She was a cheerleader who had just graduated, and she was just..." In the absence of words that could do her justice, Caleb settled for a groan and a grand hand gesture. "Gorgeous. Tall, blonde, flawless skin...perfect..." Caleb used his hands to mime a fantastic set of tits; Penny nodded her understanding. "But yeah, the team knows I'm gawking at her, they know she's down, so they explain the situation and she goes ahead and makes the first move. We get to an open bedroom, fool around, strip, again, just, ugh...and then the worst thing happens."

"Too, uh, fast?"

Caleb's laugh was bitter. "I wish. I could've spun that as a compliment. No, nothing happened." Caleb gestured downwards. "Down there."

Penny cringed in sympathy.

"Yeah, no matter what she did. Spent five minutes trying to get something going, then she called me a fag and left."

It was too easy to picture the gossipy cunts that tortured her in high school in the same position, and Penny had to stop herself from slamming her fist on the table. She settled for a roll of her eyes, a shake of her head, and the words "Fucking bitch," muttered with the sort of malice that normally had to be screamed out. When she saw Caleb's eyes bug out and his eyebrows jump, she realized that -- not counting her excoriation of the dickhead at Silver Spoons -- it was the first time she ever openly swore in front of Caleb.

"Um...language?" he tried to chide while getting over his shock.

"Sorry," she said. "Sore subject."

Caleb nodded. "Well, to be fair," Caleb asked, "what would you think if a guy you were with couldn't get it up for you?"

"What I would think isn't the point," she almost shouted, "I sure as hell wouldn't call him the f-word." She took a beat to make sure her next couple of sentences were spoken at an appropriate volume, but she made no such attempt to control her offended gaze or her frank language. "Also, as fucked up as I think it is to have such a large group of people rooting for someone to get laid? I'd try not humiliate him in front of his friends."

Caleb didn't respond immediately.

"And I'm sorry for cursing again," she quickly added, just in case.

Soon after, a gentle, appreciative smile crossed Caleb's face, and his hand seemed to tighten a bit like he was squeezing an invisible stress ball. "Well, luckily, we're all tight on the squad," he said, "so the blowback was good natured. But I did seriously wonder if I was gay for a little bit."

Penny already knew he wasn't. "So how'd you figure it out?"

"Aside from the fact that I was still watching straight porn?" Caleb scratched his eyebrow. "I, uh, met a girl I ended up being attracted to. Like, way more than the pool party girl."

"Really?" Penny arched her eyebrows, remembering the burn of his gaze during that first day of class.

"Yeah. She wasn't available, and that sucked, but she kinda helped me figure out what went wrong last summer. See, as hot as Pool Party Girl was, everything about her felt off once we started talking. I mean it's not like I'm waiting for true love or anything, but..."

"You'd rather lose your virginity to someone who probably won't call you a homophobic slur at the first sign of trouble."

"I guess, yeah."

Specifically, she thought, you'd rather lose your virginity to me.

In the span of two seconds, an argument within herself flared up and resolved. Of course there was the usual, correct voice screaming "Nope! You can't do it!" There was also a second voice whispering exciting words about enthusiasm and stamina, asking her how many of her previous partners ever looked at her like she belonged on the cover of Penthouse. She recalled a latent interest in erotic modeling in college, something she filed away because it could obviously fuck with her career, and anyway, she didn't think she was pretty enough back then. Caleb was trustworthy, though; maybe he would like to see her give it a try...

And maybe you're not the girl Caleb's talking about, dummy. It was a third voice, one that was easier to listen to because it hadn't spent the last few months judging her attraction to Caleb. The only thing you know for sure is that right now your favorite student is having conflicting feelings about his lack of a sex life. Be the mentor you're supposed to be and talk to him.

"Well," said Penny, "the good news is, you're in a really good position for college. Most high school guys are used to hooking up with...let's say 'undiscerning women.' Those women still exist in college, but most others are looking for substance, and that usually leads to a rude awakening for the ones who are used to having their pick. You're entering the college social scene with no expectations and...if not an idea of what you want, certainly knowing what you don't want—"

"Actually, I know what I want," Caleb said. "I'm just worried that kind of person won't be into me."

"Okay, so what do you want?"

Caleb sighed, looking around, playing with his straw. He always did this when he had an answer or an observation on the tip of his tongue and couldn't quite figure out how to phrase it. But that same troubled look from the bar hung heavier on his face now, and Penny wondered if he was about to confess something very personal and life-affirming.

"Okay, please don't take this the wrong way," he finally began.

Penny leaned in closer. Part of it was offering the same courtesy he always offered her when she spoke at length. Mostly, though, she was pretty sure she knew what she was coming and she was excited to hear it.

"But -- god, I can't believe I'm folding after twenty seconds. That girl I met that I was attracted to? That was you, Miss Piper."

The grin that crossed Penny's face could have stretched to the self-help section. She had to stop herself from clapping her hands.

"I'm not making a pass," he was quick to qualify, "I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable."

"Caleb."

"I mean don't get me wrong, I think you're hot as hell, but I know it's out of the question, so I don't want you to think you have to give me a big let-down speech."

"Caleb."

"But if I could meet somebody who's hot in a down to earth way, like you are...which totally sounds more backhanded than I meant—"

"Caleb." Penny reached out and took Caleb's hand, stopping him mid-stream. "First of all, I know you're attracted to me, you haven't exactly been subtle about it."

Caleb almost looked surprised for a second, but then he seemed to remember something, and he admitted, "Yeah, I guess I haven't."

"Look at me, though: I'm not uncomfortable, I'm flattered. How could I not be?"

"You, uh..." Caleb was clearly off balance, caught somewhere between a thrill and a scare. "You realize we're still talking 'casual,' right? I just admitted that I kinda wanna...fuck you."

"No, now you've admitted that you kinda wanna fuck me," she giggled, much to Caleb's embarrassment. She gently pulled his hand closer to the center of the table. "Caleb, relax, it's...okay, inappropriate, but it's not unnatural."

"Yeah, but..." Caleb sighed, that guilty look in his eyes still present. "Look, the thing is, I'm not talking about soft, tender sex. I mean, I like you a lot. You're the best teacher I've ever had, I just have so much respect and admiration for you. And somehow, all of that is tied up with wanting to throw you onto a bed and...and pound the shit out of you, all right? The way that fuckin' cock from the bar wishes he could."

Penny crossed her legs. Tightly.

"And I feel like an asshole, because I'm not sure you do that to someone you respect. And obviously there's no way you think of me like that—"

She bit her lip. Hard.

"—but that doesn't bother me so much. I mean, it's not like this is love. Any time I try to picture marriage and kids and shit, it feels...off."

She nodded her head, too busy trying to look like she wasn't crossing her legs and biting her lip to do much more.

"Really, I just hate that I can't just appreciate you for how awesome you've been to me. And now that I'm telling you all this, I really hate that you'll probably never talk to me again without thinking, 'Oh, that's the creep who took all that extra help to try and get in my pants.'"

Penny blinked. She uncrossed her legs. Let go of her lip.

* * * * *

She remembered the heat of his gaze from the first day of class.

She remembered that gaze through much of the first half of the year, up through the Shakespeare unit where he asked for extra help.

However, his gaze eventually had a diminishing effect on her. She figured she was just getting used to the idea of Caleb as a student rather than a piece of ass to jill off over in the shower; she probably was. Thinking back, though, Penny started to recognize a gradual, subtle shift in Caleb's attitude throughout that unit. When he approached her for extra help, he was as kind as he always was, but there was a cocksure aloofness to him -- a sense that he was positioning himself, even if he wasn't sure to what end. Working through MacBeth together, all that seemed to gradually fall away; he became a little more open, a little more attentive, a little more eager to put work in.

It wasn't that his gaze wasn't working on Penny as well anymore, it's that it was getting cut with genuine admiration. Admiration, and eventually something else.

Something Penny recognized in his eyes right now.

* * * * *

Caleb sighed. "Anyway, that's been on my chest for six months. Maybe I should've gone with decaf."

"Caleb," asked Penny, "is this why I had to come to you about The Light in the Forest? Because you were ashamed of having a crush on me?"

Caleb shrugged. "'Crush' is a weird way to describe it, but...kinda, yeah."

Penny smiled a warm smile, took Caleb's hands back into her own, and said, "Oh sweetie. I'd hug you, but I don't want you to worry about popping a boner."

Caleb chuckled and shook his head; whatever invisible weight dragged him down for most of the night finally seemed to slough off his shoulders.

"Look," she explained, "your desire to 'pound the shit out of me' doesn't mean you don't respect me. Respect is earned on a way more rational plane than sexual attraction; if our hormones had anything to do with rational thought, I wouldn't be attracted to you at all. It's what you consciously do about that attraction that measures the respect you have for that person. Blackmail, manipulation, rape; that's what real disrespect looks like. You understand?"

"Yeah, but wait—"

"Also? Nothing about what you're going through is odd or shameful. You only hit puberty, what, six, maybe eight years ago? There are people older than me who are just starting to get the hang of how to deal with lust. If anything, the fact that you recognize that this—" Penny painted the air between her and Caleb with her hand. "—isn't romantic love? That puts you way ahead of the curve."

"I guess that makes sense," said Caleb. "But, uh, did you just admit that you were into me?"

Being shorthanded on brain cells, Penny needed a few moments to frantically comb back over her words, a moment longer than Caleb would give her.

"You said, if our hormones had anything to do with rational thought, you wouldn't be attracted to me."

"No I didn't," Penny stammered, klaxons going off in her head.

Caleb leaned in; daring her, clearly unsure if he really wanted to.

"Shit," Penny groaned into her hands, after realizing how weird it would look if she ran for the door. "Did I?"

Caleb just nodded, expression unchanging. Penny shook her head, quietly resolving to never drink rum again.

"Okay, screw it. You were honest with me, I'll be honest with you." She drew a deep breath, mining as much courage as she could from the oxygen. "You talked about throwing me onto a bed earlier," she said. "Well, if we weren't teacher and student? If I was just some girl you saw at a party, and you went up to me and acted like your sweet self, looking at me the way you've been looking at me for the past 9 months? I promise you, we wouldn't have made it to a bed."

Caleb had absolutely no reaction for a good thirty seconds.

There was a split-second moment where it looked like he was about to react with something like shock, but then he went blank again.

Eventually he settled on something Penny had to agree was perfectly rational: He threw his head back, clasped his hands over his mouth, and closed the muscles in his throat in a valiant attempt to suppress his laughter. "Oh my God," he choked out, "what is happening?"

"If you figure it out, let me know." Penny was half mortified, half thankful to be free of the burden of her own shameful secret. "I'm kind of surprised YOU didn't notice."

Caleb's gaze returned to Penny, his expression peaceful yet unstable as he tried to figure out for himself: "Jesus. So what happens now?"

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