On the first day of camp, we tramped from the dorm that would house us for two weeks down to the boathouse. It was July 1989, and despite the scorching Maryland heat, the fifty of us – a healthy split between boys and girls – wore shoes and socks, sweatpants and turtlenecks to protect our skin from the moon jellyfish of the Chesapeake. The counselors, bronzed from previous camp sessions, laughed and lounged on solid ground as they provided each of us a partner and instructions.
I was paired with a girl. We walked to the end of the dock and jumped in, the way dogs do, necks arched to the heavens to keep our heads above water. We swam past the mooring to the boat and hoisted ourselves into the cockpit, then stood up, pulled on the port shroud, and collapsed like old trees back into the water. With the boat capsized, we made our way around the hull and pressed our bellies against the dagger board until the mast began to rise. Then we swam to the spit of beach beside the boathouse, exhausted but done. If our boat flipped on the open water, the counselors knew we would survive.
Back on shore, my partner and I joked and smiled, our nautical baptism behind us. I spoke with ease and efficiency, a stark contrast to the insecure demeanor I normally displayed around girls I didn’t know. Out on the dock, the next pair awaited the counselor’s whistle, “Look,” I said, pointing towards the boat. We laughed at the ribbons of jellyfish tentacle dangling from the mast; “It’s like drool.”
The moment, no longer than a few heartbeats, was perfect: I was with a girl and everything felt normal. But what made this easy was the ridiculous context. We looked like clowns, standing on land in lifejackets, our brows damp with sweat, our brine-soaked bodies draped in old lumpy clothing.
And that’s when it happened. She peeled it all off, water-logged piece by piece, to announce a bikini that I hoped she would wear every day, “I’m Kelly,” she said. She smiled again and walked back to the other campers, toting at her side the clothes that made her easy to talk to. But I wasn’t smiling; my face was slack. I was fifteen, and – like other boys at camp – had no training for this.
For many Americans, summer camp is the first parentless communal experience with the opposite sex. We may not sleep in the same quarters, but we’re dangerously close – in cabins and tents, cafeterias and bathrooms. This posed a quandary for the boys at camp. Back at home, we could oust our pent-up energy during gym class dodgeball or by running about the neighborhood. But here, where bathing suits were perfectly acceptable attire, our energy had no outlet. Torture and joy befell us in equal measure. All of a sudden, the carnal images that had previously been restricted to hand me-down magazines and VHS tapes cloistered in bedroom closets now graced us with their curvaceous three-dimensional presence. The girls at camp walked, breathed, giggled – and on occasion – talked to us.
One evening a few days after camp had begun, I and three other boys walked through a second-floor commons and onto a balcony, where we leaned over the railing. Even in our silence there was noise, as the peal of cicadas caromed off the courtyard walls below. The girls slept behind those walls, and while I wondered what went on in their rooms, the floor between us lent me the distanced comfort I was accustomed to.
As we stood there, a light in one of the first-floor rooms burst to life. Against the backdrop of darkness it illuminated everything inside: a metal bedframe, a notebook atop a desk, a poster on a wall. Then a girl walked into sight, one towel wrapped around her head, another around her body. I stabbed my finger repeatedly into the ribcage of the boy next to me. By now all four of us stared and prayed. I briefly mulled the ethics of the moment, but decided to stay, as did the others.
We watched as the girl removed her towel to reveal a pair of beautiful breasts and a foreign triangle beneath her waist. As I thanked my lucky stars, a fifth boy showed up on the balcony, and upon seeing the girl, went into hysterics. He jumped about and shouted, “Woohoo!” and, “Hot mama!” and other absurdities. We shushed him, punched him, but still he whistled and clapped wildly, as a ranch hand herding livestock might. The girl screamed when she saw us and ducked out of sight. In a flash we ran off, before anyone could identify us as the boys whose most intense sexual thrills came at a distance.
My roommate at camp was also fifteen, a boy named Josh from Grand Rapids with a lazy eye and a whiskey bottle he stashed in the ceiling panels above his bed. Josh wasn’t a virgin. He’d lean back on his pillow, fingers tucked behind his head, and regale me with stories of sexual transactions. I had a story too, I suppose; but it was unfinished, an opening line trailed by lamentably blank pages. After fifteen years I had kissed a girl, sans tongue – akin to copping a second-base feel with the bra still shackled to the treasure; it didn’t count. Heavy with physical desires, I didn’t know what to do with them.
In the evening, other boys would visit our room. We’d sit around and nosh on snacks, listening to raunchy comedians on cassette. We’d laugh at the titles of pornographic films or we’d tally a vulgar list of female body parts. But when the subject changed to experience – how far did you go – only a few traded exploits. The rest of us just tagged along, trying to preserve a subtle calm in our demeanor, careful to use the past tense if we spoke at all.
Soon the subject changed to the girls at camp; we hardly knew their names, so in that sense we were all virgins. I mentioned that I thought the girl I jumped from the dock with was cute. “Her name’s Kelly,” I said. Others warmed to the topic, and we took turns describing the girls we coveted. I was embarrassed I had nothing to share about Kelly but her name. Since that first day I had seen her often, but each time she was near, my stomach would knot. I had tried to conjure up an older version of myself to approach her, but inevitably found it safer to remain fifteen.
For a few hours each day everyone sat in classrooms. The counselors taught us to tie bowlines and cleat hitches, which tack had the right of way during regattas, and what it meant to be in irons. I stole glances at girls as they took notes or labeled boat nomenclature. Then we’d head back to the boathouse, pick a partner, and sail for hours. We’d race each other, tacking and jibing around buoys. I and my sailing partner – also male – would stalk aquatic, pursuing a boat whose quarry we found attractive.
If it was open sail, we explored. Sometimes we’d shoot across the cove, the sun beating down on us, to the forgiving shade of a pine grove; other times we’d tinker around the docks, running aground as we ventured too close to shore. We could also head a good half mile into the rougher waters of the bay. There we’d heel until we took on water, hike our butts over the side to bring us level, then do it again. On the massive saltwater expanse, we’d marvel at our fragility, two mortal specks atop a slice of fiberglass no bigger than a family sedan.
Out on the water is also where we’d open up, the boat a sanctuary for juvenile anxieties. We’d talk about siblings and divorces, fears and dreams. We’d also share the salacious thoughts noodling around in our heads: sexual positions, ill-timed boners, how far the girls at camp had gone or were willing to go. Though I never spoke of it, I found the prospect of consummating my desires terrifying, even as we tore across the bay without a care in the world. Out on the water I was confident, where by dint of circumstance, my clothes stayed on. But back on land I felt vulnerable.
The dinghies weren’t equipped with proper lighting for night sailing, so the counselors filled our evenings with activities to stave off mischief and idleness. I remember a relay race beside the park benches that fringed the shoreline. Each participant bent over and placed their forehead on an upright baseball bat, then spun ten times around it. When you stood up you were supposed to run across a swath of grass and tag a teammate, but your legs would take you elsewhere and you’d collapse in a fit of laughter. At that moment we were all funny; if it was effortless attention we fancied, we got it in spades. On some nights, we’d huddle around a bonfire beneath the stars. Someone would pluck at a guitar or narrate a ghost story. But most of us stood by as the braver ones showcased their talents. The flames would hiss and crackle, providing unneeded warmth to our sunburnt faces.
As the camp’s end neared, I learned vicariously through friends – par for the course in adolescence – that Kelly liked me too. This mutual knowledge, mercifully, spared us the embarrassment of declaring our feelings for one another. In the days that remained, we coped with social dilemmas: which friends to sit with in the cafeteria, if we wanted to hold hands in public. But we also became sailing partners, and sat together during evening activities. If we were separated we scanned the crowd, smiling when our eyes met.
Talking was another story. We did not speak of video games or sports or bra sizes, as I had back in the dorm rooms. Instead our conversations housed the fragile cargo of nervous laughter, cracked voices; in three days, the details we learned about each other would not have filled a questionnaire.
On the final night we walked to the marina. We held hands and dangled our feet over the dock’s edge, one leg brushing against another. Our conversation faded, leaving in its place the patter of insects against a dock light. The inside of my mouth, long since dry, would remain so until I leaned in. When I finally did, our teeth collided. We pulled back, laughed, then tried again.
As curfew neared I thought about what other camp couples were doing and where they were doing it. I thought about Josh, and if he was in our room. I thought about what Kelly might want to do, and what I might want to do, and I wondered if I was ready for anything at all. “Well?” Kelly asked, turning to face me.
“What do you want to do?” she said. Fear slicked my throat.
“Do you want to exchange addresses?” I asked. It wasn’t what I wanted, really, but I knew it was all I could handle. In that instant I felt weak; any opportunity for something more had surely been dashed. But she smiled.
“That sounds nice,” she said. After that we talked a while longer – I can’t remember what about. But I recall us holding hands and staying out past curfew. In the morning we all packed our things and said goodbye. When my parents arrived, I hugged them. Then I threw my bags into the trunk and got into the back, clicking my seatbelt before my father could tell me to.