North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. – James Joyce, “Araby”
I was the boy who sat far from the lake with a sketchbook on his lap while the other kids swam and splashed and horsed around in the water. Sometimes, when the counselors were too busy laughing and flirting with each other to notice, I walked up the hill to the basketball court and sat in the metal bleachers. From this perch I drew the overhead perspectives that were my aesthetic preference as a 14-year-old. I observed all the young white bodies playing in the brown lake below. Their shoulders and heads lolled above the surface like ice cubes in a just-poured cola. Down the other side of the hill, I saw the long flat roof of Ruskin Hall, a bench-filled building serving as theater and synagogue. Farther on lay Girls Campus, a dozen blue and white bunk houses arrayed in a semicircle at the edge of a grassy field. In the center of Girls Campus stood a flagpole bearing banners of the US and Israel. I often imagined how I would appear if I were able, somehow, to draw myself from atop the flagpole. In my elevated fancy, the bleachers resembled a jagged set of silver teeth with wide gaps in between, into which my legs and feet disappeared.
In the third week of the summer session, my counselor, a 17-year-old named Roger Solomon, caught on to my bleacher escapes. He reported me to camp authorities. One consequence was I would miss my bunk’s upcoming bus trip to the mall in Syracuse. In a letter to my recently remarried mother, whom I wrote almost daily, I bragged, “So I’ll miss the chance to see a lame big-budget movie, to consume lame fast food, and to buy a lame t-shirt with a fashionable emblem on it. Not a big deal.”
Nor did I mind the other facet of my punishment: getting “docked” for one week of my nightly privileges. While my bunkmates ate and drank in the canteen, played basketball under the lights, and merrily participated in coed social events, I sat alone in the bunk. I wrote to my mom, I read comics, and I played solitaire with actual cards. Still, my tolerance for confinement had its limits. It was no difficult task to sneak out of the bunk and walk to the Arts & Crafts Shack, where I really knew how to have fun. I mixed orange and pink paints, aiming for the mandarin-bubblegum hue of the horizon at sunset. I chopped colored paper into small triangles and parallelograms for use in abstract collages. Alone at night, the ceiling fan delicately whipping the warm air above my crew-cut head, I twisted open the orange tops of Elmer’s glue bottles, just to get a whiff. The snapping of scissors, the demure squeak of the large paper cutter as I cautiously lowered the blade, careful not to lose a finger – this soundtrack accompanied whatever ambient acoustics came through the open, unscreened windows. Owls and crickets, to be sure, but also horn-heavy music blaring down from Israeli dancing activities held on the basketball courts. Sometimes groups of campers and counselors strolled by. I overheard their jocular conversations and their singsong efforts: verse, verse, chorus, and verse from Queen or Pink Floyd or Top 40, seldom missing a stanza. Occasionally I heard folk tunes co-opted as contemporary canticles: “The Circle Game” or “If I Had a Hammer.” Tentatively lowering the handle of the paper cutter one night, I heard a few female voices in mid-verse:
I don’t know what I’m to say
I’ll say it anyway,
Today isn’t my day to find you
I’ll be coming for your love, okay?
I waited for the volume of the voices to fade so I could return to my serious slicing. But the voices came closer. The screen door of the shack flew open, its wooden frame thwacking the paneled wall. Putting aside my stack of colored paper, daintily lowering the blade to its resting space, I turned to see three girls whom I recognized as Pioneers – the camp’s oldest group, 15 or 16 years old, about to enter eleventh grade. All three wore t-shirts, mesh lacrosse shorts, and flip-flops. “Hi!” exclaimed one of them. She was extremely suntanned. She turned back to the other two and giggled.
“Shouldn’t you be at Israeli dancing?” asked the lone blond of the trio. Though her hair was nearly yellow, her eyes and their lashes were almost black. Her lips were dark too.
“I’m docked,” I said.
“What bunk are you in?” replied the blond.
When I told her, she turned to her friends and they laughed again.
“One of Roger’s,” said the blond. We all exchanged names. Lonnie, the suntanned one, said, “Well, Jayson, would you care to smoke with us?”
“Okay,” I said. The blond, Rael, withdrew a pack of American Spirits from her shorts pocket. She slapped the base of the pack a few times against her open palm. The four of us sat in wooden chairs on opposite sides of a banquet table, with Lonnie and Rael facing me and Eliza. We used the lid of a paint can as an ashtray. “Do you have a girlfriend, Jayson?” asked Lonnie.
“Jayson’s married to his art,” said Rael. The other girls turned to her. “I’ve seen him up in the bleachers,” she said. She leaned forward, reached down to her flip-flops, took them off, and hurled them, the left one then the right one, across the room. We all laughed. “I fucking hate these sandals,” she said. “The thong is way too thick between my toes.”
After our second cigarette, the Pioneers stood up to go. I walked across the shack to retrieve Rael’s footwear. They were glistening yellow, almost wet, like the inside of a pineapple. Size 7 and Gap brand. She was out the door, walking barefoot, when I called after her. “You’re sweet,” she said. “Rael, he’s 14,” said Eliza. More giggles. “Goodbye, cinnamon boy,” said Rael, squeezing my left arm. The door slammed loudly behind them. I was still holding her yellow flip-flops. I went back to the banquet table and began to draw her from memory.
Back inside the bunk before curfew, I hid the sandals under my mattress, as if they were a baseball mitt I was trying to break in. During my first game of solitaire I rolled onto my stomach, closing my eyes. The bunk was so quiet. Every squeak of my bed seemed to fill the room, from its dusty plywood floors to its raftered ceiling of crisscrossed two-by-fours, from which there dangled drying swimsuits and brown strips of flypaper. I fell asleep, only to rouse myself when Roger and my bunkmates loudly returned from Israeli dancing. “First shower!” clamored Jared Block, who slept in the bunk above mine. Shouts of “Second!” and “Third!” came next, from Seth Feller, our top soccer player, and Todd Liebman, the male lead in the camp play, a production of Oliver at Ruskin Hall. Before I could gather my scattered cards and check my shorts for telltale stains Roger pounced on my bed. He commenced to punching my thighs and biceps, pounding me with the man-to-man love taps known as “dead arms” and “dead legs.” I was in pain, all four limbs were numb, but I was laughing too. “What’d you draw for me tonight, Jew-casso?” he asked. I handed him my sketchbook. He flipped past portraits of my mother – who looked like the lady on the box of Sun Maid raisins – and her new husband, Harvey, who might have been thrice her weight. He flipped past my comic book mimicry – derivative portraits of colorful caped strongmen I’d christened Windranger and Gravityman. At last, Roger came to a picture of himself – standing on the roof of Ruskin Hall, a flag of Israel in his left hand, a US flag in his right, and a speech bubble reading, “Lo, I am mighty!” Had he turned one more page, he’d have found my sketch of Rael’s face, her blond hair swirling outward from her purplish lips and dark eyes, and all of it set against the plain white page, like a black-eyed Susan in the snow.
But Roger’s gaze remained on his own portrait. “I’m touched,” he said. “You should do one of these for each guy in the bunk.” I told him I’d be happy to do so, especially if he could get me on the bus to the Syracuse mall. For now I had a reason to shop. Not that I intended to share the specifics of my newfound consumerism with Roger, or anyone else. Roger promised me nothing. The trip was in just two days, he reminded me, and who knew if camp authorities could be persuaded in such a short period.
On the morning of the trip I arose at six – three hours before the scheduled bus departure – and sat “Indian style” next to a cylindrical garbage bin outside Roger’s cordoned-off section of the bunk. He had been silent on the matter since our bedside discussion. And I had been too timid to follow up, for fear he would interrogate me about my urgency. When Roger emerged from his quarters with his hand down his boxers, stepping quickly toward the bathroom, he did not see me – or he did, but passed by without a greeting. I followed him and after listening to the firm plash of his piss in the stall I said, “What’s the verdict, Raj?” Not without some drama did he finish pissing, letting loose a stream of farts and a basso profundo moan. He flushed by pushing down the lever with the toes of his left foot. “Jaybird,” he said, “I have a confession. I totally forgot to ask anyone. Let me see what I can do. Sit tight.” I nodded as he walked by without punching me in the arm.
At breakfast I couldn’t eat. I excused myself to use the bathroom, but my real goal was to approach the Pioneers’ table. Rael was forking through some scrambled eggs, looking down at her plate. Her hair was almost as yellow as the eggs. Eliza, on Rael’s right, happened to see me. She nudged Rael, who looked in my direction with her mouth full. Her closed dark lips seemed to be saying, “I would smile at you, cinnamon boy, but you caught me chewing.” She waved at me. I waved back and turned away. I was euphoric.
When I returned to my bunk’s table Roger was gone. “He’s asking about you,” said Jared, loud enough so that everyone could hear. I stood still at the head of the table. Then Seth, the soccer star, chimed in. “Of course,” he said, “We’re all wondering why a tortured artist like yourself would lower himself to endure a bus ride, a shopping mall, and a movie theater, all in the same day.”
“I’m dying to see Terminator 2,” I rejoined, rolling my eyes for their benefit and hoping to curtail the inquiry. Just then I was seized from behind; two sinewy arms I instantly recognized as Roger’s clasped me in a full nelson. “Jaybird Rosen, you hook-nosed Fruit-of-the-Loom wearing snobby-assed bitch – do you like cleaning toilets?” he asked. The rest of the bunk was laughing, and so was I, for I knew from the tone of his question that Roger was welcoming me aboard the bus to Syracuse. Before Roger let me go, I pledged to clean our bathroom every day for the rest of the summer.
A few hours later, Jared and I were on an escalator. “Why do we have to go to the Gap?” he asked.
“I promised a Pio I’d get her some flip-flops,” I said.
I hesitated. “Rael,” I finally said after he punched my arm. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“Holy shit, you’re friends with her?” he said.
“Tell no one.”
“Well, just be quick about it,” he said, checking his watch. Terminator 2 was starting in 15 minutes.
While Jared sorted through some three-packs of boxer shorts, I withdrew Rael’s flip-flops from my backpack and showed them to a salesgirl. “Do you have any other size 7, where the – you know – the toe thingamabob isn’t so thick?” I asked. We walked to the rear wall of the store where a dozen flip-flop varieties hung from hooks. She pulled five bright colors – orange, yellow, turquoise, pink, and bright green – and sized up the thong thickness before handing me the pink. “Do you think a girl who likes bright yellow will generally like pink too?” I asked.
She grinned. “Why don’t you ask her?” she said.
“I want to surprise her,” I said.
“Essentially,” I said.
Standing at the store entrance, Jared called my name. I purchased the pink flip-flops with the thin thongs and stuffed them in my backpack. I kept the backpack on my lap during Terminator 2, reaching inside during opening credits to make sure both pairs of sandals were still there. I fingered the thick thongs, then the thin thongs. At length I leaned back and looked up at the enormous screen. The fabric of the seat tickled my buzzed scalp. The intense air conditioning chilled my not yet hairy shins and forearms.
A few days later I took my backpack with me to Israeli dancing. Inside were the two pairs of flip-flops and my Rael sketch. Jared had, of course, revealed my crush to the entire bunk, which initially embarrassed me. But on this night I was happy the secret was out. No one, not even Roger, teased me about bringing my backpack to the basketball court. And no one teased me when I called out, “First shower!” for the first time that summer.
But I did not see Rael on the basketball court. Lonnie and Eliza guessed that she had strolled off to the bathroom. I walked in the general direction of Girls Campus, unsure what to do. All the bunks were dark. I stood next to the flagpole for a few minutes, rehearsing what I’d say. “Will you be my girlfriend?” was what I decided on. I zipped open my backpack, just to make sure everything was still there. And then – not quite ready to return to the basketball courts – I wandered into Ruskin Hall. On the stage, on her back, was Rael. A young man I recognized as a male Pio had his right hand up the left leg of her lacrosse shorts. Her feet were bare. He was wearing basketball sneakers. I felt as if my own feet were moored to the floor. My upper body trembled but I could not bring myself to run away or to stop watching. Drops of sweat trickled from my armpits, down my sides. I began to breathe heavily and I blinked a few times, just to make sure – yes – this was indeed Rael. Goosebumps dotted my arms, though it was a midsummer’s night. And I heard her whisper something, and I heard him say: “He’ll go away.” I didn’t move until Rael giggled and said: “Oh my God, it’s the boy from the art shack.” I turned to walk out, quickening my pace when after a few steps she did not call out to me.
Out of Ruskin Hall, on the grass of Girls Campus, I began to cry. At first it was softly but soon my face was slick and I could not control myself. She doesn’t even know my name. That was the first of many quick-coming thoughts. She smoked with me. She said I was sweet. She waved in the dining hall. She said I was married to my art. She squeezed my arm.
I could not stop crying or analyzing. I wiped my eyes with my sleeves and did my best to nonchalantly make my way back to Boys Campus. But I stared straight at the ground and sobbed loudly the whole way. Two female counselors, walking in the opposite direction, asked if I was okay. “I’m fine,” I said, sniffling, and moved past them. Soon the sounds of Israeli dancing had faded behind me and I was back in the bunk. On my bed I tried to draw but my arms kept shaking. I could not even hold my colored pencils or keep the sketchbook steady on my weakened legs. I closed my eyes and cried, face down on the pillow I had pretended was her face.
When I finally stopped perhaps ten minutes had passed. From my backpack I took her two pairs of sandals and wrapped them all together – all four in a stack – with a few strips of unused flypaper from the bunk’s supply. Yellow and yellow, pink and pink, all were banded by the brown tape, which adhered on both sides. Next I wrapped my Rael drawing around the flip-flops. For a finishing touch, I encased the entire thing with still more flypaper. In its light brown color and oblong shape, the whole structure resembled a football made of flypaper rather than pigskin. I paced around the bunk with the figurative football. I took one long last look at it, and tried to drop it into the trash bin near Roger’s section of the bunk. But it stuck to my palms. Only by using the rim of the bin as a wedge did I manage to place the football in the trash. I washed my hands, and then I sat down to write a letter to my mom. I told her all about Rael and then I wrote: “You always say you miss being young. That probably means something like this never happened to you.”