Content warning: Themes/mentions of physical abuse and death
I apologize in advance. For the lateness of this, and for any details I get wrong. Twenty years has been nothing but one long tidal wave, crashing onto the beach of my memory. I can never quite recall what all I told you out there, how much of myself I let you see. I only know for certain how it all ended.
Camp Crescendo looked like any other summer camp you'd find in Iowa, and maybe that was the problem. Not as though I'd been to any other summer camp. But I imagined, as Mr. Aaron shepherded me and my parents past the mess hall and the communal showers and the camp counselor's lodge with the infirmary, that it was no different. That it was normal. I couldn't fathom why this, of all places, was the one my folks were sending me "for my own good."
That is, until we got to your—our—cabin.
"And this is where you'll be staying, Michael!" Mr. Aaron said in that overenthusiastic camp counselor voice. He raised his twiggy arm to the cabin as though it were the grand prize on a game show. (He had a habit of doing that, didn't he? Making things seem better than they were.)
After exchanging two lukewarm hugs and some perfunctory "I love yous" and "See you soons," I trudged up the steps to the cabin and closed both the door and my eyes. When my parents' voices were only whispers in the wind, I opened my eyes and was immediately disappointed. The room was bare, featureless. Four walls. Two windows. One bunk bed.
Like I said, I'd never stayed at another summer camp, so I assumed that bed was mine alone. I was already planning on saving the top bunk for weekends when you sat up straight, your head nearly grazing the ceiling. I screamed—I'm not proud of it but we both know that's what happened.
From your perch you watched me the way a mother robin watches over her eggs, like I was a threat to the precious nest you'd spent so long cultivating. I didn't know many robins with peach fuzz and shaggy hair and Sharpied neck tattoos though. But there was something magnetic in your blue-eyed gaze, something that drew me closer. Something that reminded me why I'd been banished to Camp Crescendo in the first place.
Would you have said anything to me at all if I hadn't spoken first? Be honest. If I hadn't shuffled over, offered that handshake, and told you it was nice to meet you, would you have sat there listening to my heart pounding as I tried not to stare at you?
You grimaced at the sight of my proffered hand. "Man, are you trying to get us in trouble?" And you must've seen the confusion on my face, because you said, "What, Aaron didn't tell you about the cameras?"
Before I could respond, your hand appeared from under the covers, middle finger raised in a salute. I wish I could recall what I felt as you orbited that finger around the room, a Saturn's ring of disrespect. Was I amused? Horrified? Did I consider asking Mr. Aaron to reassign me to another cabin, or did I thank fate for putting me in this one, with you?
Then your expression softened—it most certainly did; you weren't always so guarded—and you said, "Camp policy, man. No touching allowed unless we're in group sessions. They've pretty much got cameras all over this place to make sure we're always following that rule."
I looked around again, but the inventory remained the same: four walls, two windows, one bed. Only now, there was someone else in here. As far as I could see, there were no cameras.
"It's a three-strikes policy," you added, neck tattoo bobbing with each syllable. "You get caught breaking the rules three times, you're screwed."
This seemed like too much information for Mr. Aaron to have simply glossed over. "How do you know?" I asked, striving for a curious tone but ending up closer to skeptical.
You laughed, a sound like stepping on gravel. "Why do you think I had this room to myself?" you said, rolling over on your side. And even though it was eighty degrees outside, you wrapped those covers around you like a turtle retracting into its shell.
And right then and there, I knew I wanted to see that soft expression again. I wanted to be the one to coax you out of your shell.
The problem is: You were an enigma, a puzzle that didn't come with all 500 pieces in the box. Or maybe you had all your pieces but too many were identical.
Some days it felt like I was making progress. Once, during my first week there, you passed me a pair of safety scissors in the arts-and-crafts station and I swear you brought your hand as close to mine as you could without making contact. Close enough that I could smell your Old Spice deodorant, like cinnamon and orange.
Other days I felt myself backsliding. On the Tuesday of my second week, when I tried to join you in the mess hall for breakfast, you turned to your friend and said, "No middle schoolers allowed, right, man?" though you were only a year older. And everyone at the table laughed, but none of their voices held a candle to yours.
Group sessions were no help either. Remember those? The only time we were allowed to touch.
Remember how Mr. Aaron used to round up all us campers, a covey of boys with rosy cheeks and frosted tips and dangly earrings, and would arrange us in a big circle in the middle of the mess hall? How he assigned us a different session partner every day and had us practice "non-sexual physical contact": holding hands with one another, back rubs, hugs. Anything to get the "homosexual urges" out of our systems so we wouldn't be tempted to keep doing it or to go any further.
What I remember most is this: Not once were you selected to be my partner. Mr. Aaron seemed to have no rhyme or reason to his pairing system. More than once I was paired with the same few eighth-graders, and I was stuck with your friend—Duncan, the one you turned to that day in the mess hall—on four separate occasions. It was a lousy consolation prize, trying to imagine you in his place, pretending the sweaty armpits wrapping around my shoulders were yours.
He didn't even wear deodorant.
Perhaps you never thought me capable of breaking the rules. Maybe you took one look at me the first day I entered the cabin and deemed it impossible for me to earn a single strike.
But you were wrong. Three weeks into my stay, I got my first strike.
What you hadn't told me was what would happen next.
When Mr. Aaron put his hand on my shoulder after breakfast and told me to come with him while you and the others had morning group session, I was afraid. Afraid that I had done something wrong, and also afraid that I hadn't. That maybe I'd behaved myself so well, Mr. Aaron had decided to call my family and tell them I'd been cured and cleared to return home.
Mostly, I was afraid I wouldn't see you again.
We marched across the grass, sun in our eyes, on our skin. My face had never felt hotter. We reached the staffer's lodge, wide as three cabins stacked together. Inside, I saw a collection of identical offices to my left, rooms that looked bland and flavorless as unseasoned chicken. On the wall of one room was an oversized photo of Mr. Aaron, ropy arms looped around three people who must've been his wife and his two daughters.
That's not the direction we went. Mr. Aaron steered me to the right, down the hall, into the camp's infirmary.
"Have a seat, Michael," he said. The room was windowless and stuffy, with only a sickbed in the middle, a dialed machine next to it, a file cabinet in the corner, and the surge of our body heat spiraling around us. "Get comfortable, please."
Only when I lay on the bed did he open the file cabinet and retrieve a set of braided wires. Without speaking, without explaining a thing, Mr. Aaron crouched down and started attaching the wires to each of my hands. Then he connected those wires to the dialed machine.
"Now, Michael," he said, in the same patient voice he used for group sessions, "I'm going to ask you a couple questions. Is that all right?"
"Am I in trouble, sir?"
"My questions first, if you don't mind."
"Okay." One word but my voice still cracked like an egg.
Mr. Aaron cleared his throat. "Were you looking somewhere you shouldn't have been when you were in the showers yesterday?"
I knew what he meant, of course. I'd been good at controlling my "homosexual urges": not touching anyone outside of group sessions, keeping my head down at the urinals, minding my own business. But the day before, in the communal showers, I caught a whiff of your Old Spice deodorant and—I admit it—my body moved faster than my brain. I hadn't touched you, just glanced, but that was apparently enough.
"Do you know what I'm talking about, Michael?" Mr. Aaron said again.
I clenched one hand into a fist. "No."
What I felt, then, was the blood rushing to my face, my heart rattling against my chest. But what I heard was the dialed machine. On the right half of its screen was a thin red needle that looked like a mountain range: jaggy, crooked, with massive peaks-and-valleys. It took a moment to realize I was looking at my heart rate.
It took even longer to register the pain. It started in my hands and galloped across my body like a lightning bolt: down my arms, in my ears, past my stomach, out through my feet. Mr. Aaron removed his thumb from the button on the machine that had delivered the electric shock.
"I'm going to ask you again," he said with his hand over the button. He sounded like he was speaking through a snorkel, like he was somewhere far away. "Where were you looking yesterday?"
That is what I didn't tell you when I returned to our cabin two hours later, snotty-nosed and puffy-eyed. I never mentioned how I spent my time with Mr. Aaron. Sure, I let you know about my strike, but I left out the part about how it happened. I let you assume that I'd been caught having physical contact with another camper. I'm not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting from you.
No, that's a lie. I wanted your smile, your laughter. The reassurance that the pain I'd felt—pain on your unwitting behalf—wasn't all for nothing. I wanted to wear that feeling like a merit badge.
Instead, you waited until the end of my story to crack your knuckles and roll your eyes. "Man, why were you doing your business out in the open like that?" you asked. "Didn't I tell you about the lake?"
"If you want to do all that, go down to the lake at nighttime. No cameras. No one watching."
I'd seen the lake once before, during my walk-through with Mr. Aaron on the day I'd arrived. I remembered staring at the lazy current, the dock that led to the shimmering water. It was a reassuring feeling, knowing this place had its secrets too. Knowing we weren't the only ones.
Only then did you smile. "Matter of fact," you said, leaning closer, "come down to the lake tonight. I'll show you what I mean."
In that moment, I imagined what my heart rate would look like on Mr. Aaron's machine, the squiggles running wild and free like an earthquake seismograph.
"How do you know?" I asked, striving for skepticism but ending up closer to curiosity.
Before you climbed up the ladder to your bunk and vanished under your covers, you turned to me and said, "Man, how do you think I've gone this long without getting a strike?"
If you ever wondered how it happened, here it is: I did go to the lake that night. With the best of intentions, too.
Just like you told me, I waited twenty minutes after you left—not too soon that anyone would accuse us of breaking the rules together, not too long that you'd think I was chickening out—and then slipped out into the night. Without a flashlight, I moved slowly, guided by the skein of stars. The camp was silent, save for the crickets chirping and my heart thumping. Still, I continued down the winding dirt path until I reached the bushes that bordered the lake.
And there you were, standing on the dock. The moon reflected off the water, rinsed you in its ghostly light. But I knew it was you. More than anything, I knew you were waiting for someone.
Looking back, I'm not sure what I would've done if I'd actually met you out there on the dock. Would I have told you all this? Would you have laughed your gravelly laugh, or would you have addressed me as delicately as those arts-and-crafts safety scissors?
Would it have mattered? I don't know.
What does matter is the truth. Which is this: Before I made it down to the lake, before I even took that first step, I froze in place when the bushes rustled near me. And I knew from the B.O., even fifteen feet away, even in the darkness of night, that it was your friend Duncan. From the safety of the shadows, I watched him approach you, watched you raise your arm to wave, watched where your hands went next.
You told me there were no cameras down by the lake, no one watching, but you were wrong. I was there. I was watching.
Then I wasn't. And if you got this far, I want you to know: this is the part I'm not proud of.
I turned and sprinted as fast as I could, trampling pine needles and kicking up clouds of dust. My legs ached and my breath hitched in my throat, but I didn't stop running until I felt my fists coming down on the door to the camp counselor's lodge. One by one the lights in the building knifed the darkness. The door opened and I lost my balance and Mr. Aaron, in his pajamas, disobeyed his own rule when he reached out to steady me. Behind him the other counselors stepped forward, rubbing their eyes, yawning, blinking.
It's funny (I say this not as the setup to a joke but as an observation): On the way to the lodge, I couldn't stop my mind from moving. But on the trip back to the lake, with all those counselors trailing me, I had a clear image: I pictured you in the infirmary, with all those spiderlike wires linking you to the dialed machine. I imagined Mr. Aaron looming over you, the way he'd loomed over me earlier that afternoon. I heard him asking you those same questions, asking what you thought about me, if you felt any attraction, if you ever considered, even for a second, the thought of us touching outside of group sessions. Deep, personal questions.
And I realized then—please don't try to deny it—that the answer would always be No, and your heart rate would never change; it would always be one static line across the screen. Because unlike me, you would be telling the truth the whole time.
That's what I was thinking when Mr. Aaron and the counselors and I reached the lake and saw you and Duncan holding hands on the edge of the dock. And it hurt even worse than the electric shocks.
Only later did I hear the piecemeal truth: That you'd been at Camp Crescendo for almost a year; that your parents never answered the phone six months before, when you were officially supposed to be cured and released; that you lied, and the night that I saw you out there on the dock was actually your third strike. All this I now understand.
But I'm one puzzle piece short. What I really want to know is this: Which of these things is the reason you did it? When Mr. Aaron and the other counselors raced toward the dock, when Duncan leapt to his feet and abandoned you, dashing in the direction of the cabins, what was it that made you stand, take one look over your shoulder, and disappear into the murky water below?
Can you just tell me that much?