This part I hated more than anything. Twice a week, the two camps crossed a clearing to play coed baseball—as if trees could keep them apart the rest of the time—and, twice a week, I spent the afternoon sitting on a bench. In front of me, two boys busied themselves shoving fist over sweaty fist, until one finally cupped the nub of the bat and threw it down as if they’d been caught circle jerking. Each liked to win, but not at the cost of having to touch another boy. I didn’t turn up expecting to play, even though I could; everyone knew that. This wasn’t about sportsmanship. It was an unspoken ritual—breaking the camps off into couples, the victor getting first choice.
I looked down at the ground, at the tan lines from my tube socks. Our counsellor had insisted I take them off for no good reason and now I was stuck waiting for the ridges to fill in. I think it was payback for getting me again this summer. Only now she was a full counsellor, so she could get away with stupid stuff like this. She made me uncomfortable, always watching me. I don’t know who she thought she was. At fifteen, she wasn’t much older than the rest of us. She’d been giving me trouble since I turned up this year—probably thought I’d never come back. She had the thick calves of a field-hockey player and walked like her pad was too big. I glanced toward the fence and there she was, wincing in the sun, arms tight across her chest like she was trying to hold something down. The boys laughed when she ran the bases. “Black eyes,” they’d snicker. Sometimes I’d find her practising by herself, ball after ball soaring into the long grass. I bet she figured if she hit them far enough she wouldn’t have to run as much.
The girl next to me elbowed my side, gesturing to the boys. The captain’s finger hooked, beckoning me across the infield. I shuffled forward, shoving my hands deep into the pockets of my jean shorts. If I’d known that mine would be the first name to spill from his lips I would have feigned illness, stayed in my pup tent, and played with the painted rock my secret friend gave me. I would have reread her letters again and again, waited for her to come looking—the girl who let me wash her back, kiss her breasts, rub her middle over her pants.
Her name got called next, and we both crossed the gravel to opposite sides of home plate. I reluctantly took his side, the top of his head barely reaching my shoulder. The diamond was alive with whispers and giggles. I scanned the line of the opposing team. She was smirking, poking a finger in and out of the “O” she made with her hand. So that was it. I was his girlfriend. I felt an urge to comb my hair, change into a skirt, finally get my period—something to mark the occasion. How could this keep happening? I thought they got it. They shouldn’t let us mix.
Last summer, it was Shawn Crawley and John Thomson. They fought behind the mess hall to decide who would date me—John won. Later, Nancy Williams backed him into a tree and stuck her tongue in his mouth, so that was that. I didn’t know about any of it until Nancy told me. That was O.K., I liked Nancy. But when I hit a line drive into her nose no one believed it was an accident. The ambulance wailed toward us, kicking up dusty patches of outfield, and I leaned over to apologize, my heart breaking.
“You fucking lezzie!” she hissed.
The counsellor-in-training broke through the lines and planted her stubby hands on my shoulders. Her belt buckle pressed into my spine, she ushered me out of the crowd, almost gleeful.
“Get ready to pack your things.”
The camp’s nurse turned away from her lunch to find me standing in her doorway. She looked me up and down and rolled a chair over for me to sit in. We agreed that I would not be reprimanded for the unfortunate injury that halted Nancy’s budding career as a catalogue model, nor sent home, but there was the question of the other “incident.” A word had been uttered—did I understand its meaning? In the background, the C.I.T. levelled me, her gaze a mixture of anger and fear. I looked down at the fleecy fur of my legs, bleached by the sun but still standing at attention in the slight breeze. The other girls were smooth and glistened with the cocoa tans of bottled blonds from the commercials. I listened politely and nodded in all the appropriate places. Whatever it took to relieve her of my troubles. I wasn’t one of the girls, but I didn’t want to be a boy either, this I knew. I was something other and it would take some explaining. I just wasn’t going to confess to anything then and there with the door closed. I was excused from all future baseball games and ended out the summer packing the tent I never left.
This year was different, though—the difference being the girl mocking me now from the opponent’s team. My grasp was thin, but she was happy to pass the time with me. She had been teaching me things I couldn’t have imagined, things that made me quiver like a rushing tap. In the end, she left me wrecked, half a person, but the truth was the closest I’d come to kissing a girl was a game of sleepover Truth or Dare, but that didn’t count because it was supposed to be gross—a double dare. This girl wanted to be alone with me. She hadn’t so much as said it, but I think we were in love.
Something caught my eye then, floating from across the emptying field, its path deliberate. My punishment for becoming popular. Someone had made an obscene wish that I should be humiliated, a wish that landed splat in my lap. Fucking dandelions. I pretended not to notice the seeds spilling one by one, going off like fireworks against my crotch. Then it happened. My captain leaned over and plucked the fuzz, holding it to his lips and blowing it back onto the air. The boys howled. “Ohh! He took her flower!”
I ran, tears streaming harder than the time I fell on the kitchen linoleum, rewarded with a handsome nose. Such a handsome young man, they’d say. Such a handsome young woman, I’d correct. Light footsteps echoed mine, catching up just as I hurried to zip my tent. She fumbled in beside me and knelt close, soaking up my sobs with butterfly kisses. At dusk, we snuck down the hill to the water, wading close to the shore to a secret cove where we took turns floating one another. I steadied her on fingertips, stroking the curve of her spine, back and forth across the pits of her knees, while she closed her eyes to the visions that dazed her.
“If I was a boy…,” she started.
“If I was a boy…”
I thought hard. These moments couldn’t be wasted.
“If I was a boy, I’d date Kathleen Turner.”
She opened one eye a crack.
“Really? She’s so husky. Huh. Who else? ”
She settled her arm around my hip, hanging her thumb off the waist of my bathing suit.
“Jessica Lange? ”
“Ooh, that’s a good one!”
It was such a relief when she approved.
“You go,” I said.
“I don’t want to be a boy.”
She spread her legs to wrap about my waist and we sank until only our chins grazed the surface, bubbling bay water.
“If you were a boy…you’d want to date me.”
She wiggled free from her straps, helping me from mine.
We whirled quietly against the current, the echoes of pots and scraped plates bouncing around us. The chill of water curled against the rise and fall of our baby breasts. Her face changed.
“But I wouldn’t date you.”
She pushed off, retreating with long backstrokes while I struggled to keep afloat, waxing circles. I waited until she’d gathered her clothes before starting back to shore, the fresh waters salted and stung by the likes of me.
She came hard from behind, laughing, and turned me on my back with such force that my breath caught. I was suspended, perhaps lost, in the impossible image of her straddling my leg—bull rushed. I lay frozen on the sand, looking up into the void of her silhouette, surrounded by the pink wisps of evening sky. She bent forward, her drenched locks hanging around my face, closing us in like a curtain, and began to rock. I could only hear the sound of her breathing. I was too afraid to move. I was dizzy from her sighs—soured meatloaf and ketchup, butterscotch topping. I forced my eyes wide in the darkness, searching for traces of an expression, catching only the glisten of spit at the corner of her mouth. I rested my hands on her thighs, rubbing to the folds of her groin and slightly beyond, the creases of her bathing suit soft like the silken underbelly of an old dog. Her legs tightened around mine and she settled like a pet that has learned to trust you.
She sat upright and the peripheries spilled in. Above, two branches creaked, bark splitting like the thin skin of a blistered ankle. Below, the shore swirled, lapping, the gentle pull of a receding undertow lulling me into a trance. She continued to glide, pulling me to her chest in a hug, her arms slung tight around my neck, her chin digging into my shoulder. My back burned. Lying down had been much easier on my part, but I didn’t know yet what my part was. I focused on the glitter riding the crest, slapping up against the dock, canoes and kayaks knocking gently over bob and swirl. In the distance, a game of dodge ball, the stings of rubber welting against bare thighs.
I couldn’t sit like this much longer. She was getting heavy. My toes twitched as a cramp started to build, and my foot pitched suddenly. I must have hurt her because she whimpered, falling in a slump, shaking. I held her close, cautioning that people would hear us, while I tried to think of all the ways I could tell her I was sorry. Her hair razed my lips and I drew a strand to my mouth, sucking it dry like a face cloth—strawberry mist. I held her close and cautioned that people would hear us. She snapped up her straps and grabbed her sweatshirt, scaling the slope, a wrinkled lip hanging in a scowl.
“Don’t talk to me.”
The next night the titters around the site confirmed it—I had been dumped. Decided by the sudden and somewhat desperate affections of a girl I knew only too well.
“I never wanted him!” I yelled from inside my tent.
I threw up in the woods and made my way along the treeline into a private clearing and the unfixed shadows of a small campfire. I had heard of this place. She was there with him, huddled by his side on a stump. Some boyfriend. A few other boys circled the edges looking for attention.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I announced, but no one budged. She scoffed into his sweater and let him touch her cheek.
Someone passed a pen and pad and I watched as the others scribbled their messages. Some inked out just a few words, a repeated request to get lucky. Others wrote the full page, front and back. One by one, they floated up, ashen, disappearing out of the flames, presumably into the heavens. It occurred to me to throw in a blank sheet in protest, but upon seeing her offer him the freshly stripped skin of her marshmallow I made my plea. Take me.
I ducked back into the forest and watched a moment longer until a sporadic beam and rush of snapping twigs sent us all running back to our tents. I snagged a dangling thread on my way through the doorway and a spike came loose outside. The roof sagged, exhausted but grateful. And again she was on me, thigh pushing up the split, sticky tongue swirling mine. She pushed the hem of my sweater up to kiss my belly, her fingers tracing a path of shivers up my side. Rolling my shorts down, she hushed:
Question mark to mark the spot.
Crack the egg,
And now you freeze.
I awoke to find her snuggled beside me, stroking my back, reading from a small journal.
“I was alone, running down a country road at night. The wind tore at my coat and swept my hair back from my forehead in a mass of whirling untidiness. The trees by the roadside bent with its force and dipped and swayed as though they, like me, felt deep within them an indescribable joy, a reckless freedom. The yellow moon, obscured, now shining brightly, always changing, never still. I paused, and watching it suddenly felt the mediocrity of my petty trials. It was good to be alive.”
I took the book from her and held it under my pillow.
“What? It was nice. Your grandmother’s handwriting is so neat. Not all messy like yours.”
She straddled my back and began to trace figures.
I loved her touch but hated feeling so thankful.
“It feels like you’re cutting through water,” I whispered.
“What do you mean? ”
“I dunno…Just does.”
I pulled the journal out and flipped through the pages.
“I think she sounds kind of sad. Like she’s going crazy or something.”
“Crazy? I don’t think so. She says she’s happy.”
She sketched big letters, my stomach flipping every time she brushed my neck.
“No, she said it was good to be alive.” She wasn’t going to get it.
She finished with a flourish. Elephant shoes! I reached back to squeeze her thigh. Oh, I do love you too.
She stretched out over the full length of my back and put her hands beneath me, down the front of my shorts, past the band of my underwear.
“Besides, isn’t feeling alive the same thing as being happy? ”
I forgot to respond. The bubble pad wheezed under us and she pressed herself against me to reach deeper than ever before, resting her mouth on my ear.
“Boys put their things in there.”
She dissolved into a fit of giggles, tweaking my nipple.
I bucked my hips, knocking her into the side of the tent.
“Careful, it’s wet!”
She scrambled to right herself.
I rolled onto my back in a huff, legs crossed tight, glaring at the dip in the ceiling, embarrassed.
“I didn’t say you could do that…”
“Do what? Geez, sor-eee.”
She really wasn’t ever going to get it.
She dragged her nails along the inside wall and then across my chest, tiny beads rising.
“What does that feel like? ”
I slapped her hand and turned on my tummy, burying my face.
I heard her wrestle her bottoms away from her feet.
“I’ll let you put your finger in my belly button.”
I drew my elbows up under me, cupping my chest to punish her.
“Why would I want to do that?!”
“’Cause it feels good.”
She lifted her shirt over her head and puckered, waiting.
I lowered my head, watching my arms pimple at the thought of being inside her. Freak.
She rearranged me so that we were sitting entwined in each other’s laps and started to tickle the thin grin of her belly.
“There’s a place—if I breathe just right—it’s like touching my spine. It buzzes.”
We’d never been like this, face to face and naked. She scared me. She took my hand and licked the pads of my fingers, taking one into her mouth and sucking it until I could feel the back of her throat—coarse sponge, swollen. She circled my finger around the opening, sliding it in and out until it began to draw on its own. All I could think about was the dirt under my nails and how I must be hurting her. Just as quickly she forced me out and pushed my finger up under my nose.
“What the fuck?! It smells!”
I tried to back into the corner of the tent, but not before she stuck her finger two knuckles deep inside me. I sat stunned, pot-belly heaving, as if I’d been stabbed. The ceiling collapsed over us.
I didn’t say you could do that.
Suddenly, the tent was crowded, and the counsellor shamed us with her flashlight, dragging us into the night.
“That is enough, girls! You will both go straight to sleep! And you…”
She cuffed me by my neck and hovered for the longest time, her grip choking.
“You will be leaving us tomorrow.”