I was eleven when my mom told me I was going to summer camp. My mom and her fiancée Viv had agreed that I needed to spend time out in the real world, not tucked away in my bedroom doing God knows what. Had they known about the dirty magazine I kept under my bed, they probably would’ve been even more inclined to send me to Camp Bur Oak.
At six in the morning I sat down in the backseat of my mom’s Volvo. Viv in the passenger seat, my mom behind the wheel. While my mom pulled out of the driveway, I opened the book I’d brought along for the ride to camp: a condensed encyclopedia on Iowan flora and fauna. Some casual reading, I thought at the time. Earlier that week, I had told my mom and Viv I didn’t like sports or physical exercise in general. I was nonathletic, fat, I explained, but my mom corrected me: plump. Not fat, plump. As if a word change made me any less obese, or any less nerdish, or any less Caucasian.
Two years prior, my mom had divorced my dad. Personal differences, she told me. She wanted to move somewhere humid like Florida; my dad wanted to stay here, in Iowa, where it’s balmy or cold most of the year. She wanted to be the breadwinner; he wanted her to earn less money than he, the man of the house. She wanted a loving, monogamous relationship. He didn’t.
In the car I found myself dozing off, thinking of time I sneaked downstairs and ate nine candy bars in the pantry. Thinking of the time I pretended to be sick so that I could spend the whole day listening to my dad’s abandoned vinyl records. Thinking of the time—one week before summer camp—I took out the dirty magazine from under my bed, flipped through the wrinkled pages, past the pictures of nude women posing with baseball bats and footballs, and discovered for the first time the man on the last page. A naked man.
Limbs splayed on a mound of catchers’ mitts, head cocked to one side, wistful eyes turned toward the camera. A catcher’s mitt covered the man’s crotch. I recognized instantly how artificial the picture was with the abs sprayed on and his back bent at a strange angle. The more I looked at the picture, the more I wondered why I was looking at it in the first place when I could be gawking at the naked women. But I couldn’t stop. I stroked the man’s fake abs, curved back, and legs—first the toes, then the knees, then the thighs, then the catcher’s mitt. My heart racing, not knowing what to think, I threw the magazine on a pile of dirty socks and hurried downstairs to dinner.
By the end of the night, I knew two new things: first, I was going to Camp Bur Oak, and, second, I felt something strange for the man in the magazine. The magazine seemed diseased, like a rabid animal ready to attack me. I threw it into my bedroom closet and hoped my feelings would resolve themselves before my first day at Camp Bur Oak.
Every time I pictured the man in the magazine, my stomach tightened, my lungs chilled over, my heartbeat quickened. I wanted to tell my mom and Viv about my feelings—a part of me didn’t care if my mom and Viv discovered that I had feelings for other guys—but my pain and fear overpowered me: I didn’t want to be completely open in a world where many people still believe those like me shouldn’t exist. So, being inside the closet felt safe, but I knew better, even as I sat in the back of the Volvo on my way to Camp Bur Oak, watching the early morning stars vanish in the emerging sunshine.
“Almost there, kiddo,” Viv said. “Excited?”
“Very excited,” I mumbled.
“Cheer up,” my mom said. “Camp is supposed to be fun.”
“Yeah. Supposed to be fun.”
Before long, my mom pulled off the interstate and began to drive down a winding cement road surrounded by trees, hills, and clearings. I rolled down the window to let the breeze in. Bur oaks stood on both sides of the road, northern pine oaks towering behind them toward the center of camp. The road straightened and climbed up a steep hill, on the top and both sides of which stood a landscape of evergreen vomit—evergreen shrubs, evergreen ferns, evergreen moss.
At the end of the road my mom parked the car beside a throng of kids and their parents, and once outside the car, I dropped off my bag while my mom and Viv spoke to a tall woman at the welcome desk, whom I recognized from the cover of the camp pamphlet. She had light brown eyes, much lighter than her dark skin. Her hair was an unkempt afro with shiny clips shaped like bees. She even smelled like honey.
She came over to me and smiled. I couldn’t believe how bright and straight her teeth were. She said, “Hello, there! You must be Gavin. Pleasure to meet you!” She extended a hand. I glanced at my mom with hesitation, then extended my own. Ms. Lynn shook it with vigor.
“I used to be shy too,” she said. “Then I found confidence!”
She released my hand and laughed, as if she had just told a joke.
I tucked my book and the pamphlet under my arm and massaged my shaken hand with the other. But the pain dissipated when I turned to look at the crowd of parents saying goodbye, we’ll miss you, you’ll be taken care of. I grimaced at a crying woman; she looked as if she were sending her child off to war, never to be seen or heard of again. To my right, two boys shoved each other playfully and made obscene gestures with their hands, laughing as though delighted and amazed by their own vulgarity.
The parents started to return to their cars. My mom kissed me first, then Viv. The warmth of their lips lingered on my face.
To my left, snickers from the white boy and black boy, the same kids who were making obscene gestures from before. Abashed, I looked away. Were they snickering because I still let my mom and Viv kiss me in public? Or were they snickering because my mom and Viv were clearly a couple? Probably the latter. But when my mom and Viv got back into the Volvo, a new possibility emerged: Maybe they were snickering because they knew what I was thinking. I fidgeted, wanting to go home. But I couldn’t, because the Volvo was already gone.
The campers, and the four counselors, and Ms. Lynn, and several other adults who worked at the camp herded into the mess hall. I stayed silent as I went into the mess hall, and I avoided the two boys as I found an isolated seat near the back of the crowd. Everything around me made me feel so small that I found myself withdrawing in my chair. I was just one kid among twenty-four in a large mess hall, at a large camp, several miles from a large city, in a large country replete with people who would never understand me but knew everything I tried to keep hidden, like my fascination with the naked man in the magazine. I didn’t want to feel ashamed of being different, but I didn’t want to be misunderstood either, especially since I was still trying to understand who I really am. I looked up. Ms. Lynn gestured at the four teenagers behind her. “Please give a round of applause to your camp counselors.”
First, the girls with the matching friendship bracelets. I don’t recall much about what they said, except that they were best friends who enjoyed sunbathing. Next, the two male counselors. The first was named Dylann Blackmoore, but he preferred to be called Mr. Blackmoore. “During your time here,” he said, “if you have a problem, try to solve it yourself.” Near the end of his introductions, he said he liked basketball and wrestling.
I hoped he wouldn’t be my counselor.
Finally, the last counselor. Seth Farnum asked us to call him by his first name, then cracked a joke. A dumb joke, which softened the mood. Even Mr. Blackmoore cracked a smile. Then Seth stuck his hands in his pockets and took his time introducing himself. His thoughts were disorganized, but his speech was engaging: he loved jogging, but preferred taking long walks; he loved DC, but preferred Marvel; he loved whistling, but preferred singing in the shower; he loved taking pictures of sunflowers and tributaries, but preferred taking pictures of his girlfriend.
When he returned to his seat, as Ms. Lynn stepped forward to list everyone’s cabin number and counselor, I couldn’t look away from him. His combed hair, his straight teeth. He looked at everyone—me especially, it seemed—with reverence.
“Gavin Kearney,” Ms. Lynn said.
“Present,” I called.
“There you are.” She checked my name off her role sheet. “You’ll be in Cabin 6. With Dylann.”
Mr. Blackmoore raised his hand.
“That would be me, little man.”
My lungs collapsed into the pit of my stomach. Why him? He turned back to Seth and shook his head in disappointment. He was referring to me, I was sure. Some of the other campers glanced at me and exchanged titters. I squirmed in my seat and kept my head down until it was time to leave.
I started toward my cabin. The air was still humid, the breeze thick with the scent of muddy dirt. A moment earlier, I’d taken my travel bag from a mountain of luggage. I nearly dragged the bag alongside me, it was so heavy.
I was several feet from the cabin when the white boy and his black friend, those same vulgar kids, ran in front of me. I dropped my bag in surprise.
“Hey,” the white kid said. “Gary, right?”
“Gavin,” I stuttered.
He and his black friend introduced themselves: Quinn and Devante, respectively.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, and picked up my bag. “Cabin 8’s just over there. Seth Farnum’s your counselor.”
I didn’t know why I told them what they probably already knew, and I wondered if I didn’t sound jealous. I didn’t even know if Ms. Lynn assigned them Cabin 8, but I was hopeful.
“That’s just it,” Quinn said. “I’m with Seth, Devante isn’t. He’s with Dylann, with you, in Cabin 6.”
“Oh?” I said. I didn’t get it at first, and then a new hope creeped in, and I started to relax and I waited for him to ask the question. Which he did after he explained how much it would mean to him if I said yes.
“So you’ll switch cabins?”
Give up a week of sports with Mr. Blackmoore? Yeah, twist my arm.
“Thanks, man!” Devante said.
I started in the other direction, to Cabin 8, but Devante called to me and I stopped. He and Quinn looked even more serious. More curious.
“This is gonna sound random,” Devante said, “but how do they know each other?”
“Who?” I asked.
“The people you came here with,” Devante said. “The two women. When they were talking to Ms. Lynn, we saw them hold hands.”
“Just friends,” I said, starting to walk away.
Quinn said, “We ask because they looked like dykes.”
I stopped. Dykes. From him, it sounded like an accusation.
“No offense,” Quinn said.
“It’s just,” Devante said, “it’s just strange, yeah?”
“My mom and her fiancée?” I said.
“So they are dykes!” Quinn said, grinning.
“I guess,” I said, and laughed uneasily. I held up my bag. “Well. Gotta go.”
“Wait,” Quinn said. “We didn’t mean anything by it. I guess there’s nothing wrong with dykes or sodos. It’s just not normal.”
“Sodos?” I said.
“That’s right. Sodo—rhymes with homo,” Quinn said. “Short for sodomite. Heard of it?”
“No,” I lied, wanting to leave.
“They’re faggots,” Devante said.
I looked around. There wasn’t anyone else around, just the three of us. I looked back to Devante and Quinn. The conversation just started, I feared. I cleared my throat and forced a smile.
Quinn and Devante took a step toward me. I shuffled back. I didn’t know why they were so curious about my Mom, Viv, and me, and I didn’t care to ask. I started toward Cabin 8.
“C’mon, don’t be like that,” Devante called. “We’re just talking.”
“Yeah,” Quinn said, and chuckled. “C’mon!”
I didn’t hear them follow me, thank God, but I could still hear them.
“Sorry we called them dykes,” Devante said.
“We’re only trying to be friendly!” Quinn said. “It’s not like you’re a sodo, right?” He raised his voice. “Right?”
In Cabin 8, a one-room sleeping area, the four windows let in the breeze, which carried the smell of hackberries. I threw my bag onto the last available bed and then joined the five other campers in the center of the room. They were talking about baseball and videogames. I didn’t catch most of what they said: my heart was too busy beating between my ears, I was so relieved to be away from Quinn and Devante.
Seth came into the cabin carrying a telescope atop a tripod.
“Hello, everyone,” he said. “The name’s Seth, in case you forgot.”
One of the other campers asked, “Why do you have that?”
“Excellent question.” Seth set the tripod and telescope down. “My girlfriend gave me this telescope for my birthday last year, and sometime this week we’re going to use it to see beyond the stars. We’re not supposed to be out after eight, but the best time to see the stars at Camp Bur Oak is around 9:30. So do I have your word that you won’t say anything to Ms. Lynn?”
Excited because we all shared a secret, we gave our word.
“Good,” said Seth. “Now. Let’s introduce ourselves.”
The other five campers introduced themselves, offering forgettable names and just as forgettable “fun facts” about themselves. I was too focused on what I was going to say. When it was my turn, everyone looked at me. Seth nodded with encouragement. I hesitated. He nodded again. I smiled back nervously and opened my mouth.
I mentioned my name, my hometown, my favorite hobbies—playing video games, sleeping until eleven in the morning. I didn’t expect Seth to laugh, but I welcomed it.
“Thanks for sharing,” he said. He turned toward the other campers. “Let’s take a walk. Get familiar with the layout of the camp.”
We headed out.
During the walk, my shirt got sweaty. My thighs burned, my fat stomach ached. The farther we ventured into the underbrush, the cooler the air felt. Overhead, the canopy shaded the fallen tree limbs, the sandstone slabs, the mossy boulders along the path. We passed foxholes and deer droppings, we climbed embankments, we traversed clearings full of sunshine, and we circumnavigated the lake, where the female campers were playing volleyball. Suddenly, Seth stopped and asked, “Care for a dip?”
I wanted to change my shirt and relax in the cabin—and pray that my feet would stop hurting by dusk. But I followed the other Cabin 8 campers to the lake, where they took off their shirts and cannonballed into the water, causing the girls in the water to scream. The female counselors looked up, noticed Seth, and returned to sunbathing. When I sat down on a wicker chair next to the dock, I closed my eyes and breathed in the warm air. The chair to my right started to creak. I opened my eyes and almost jumped out of my seat.
A black girl sat next to me. Staring at me.
“Yes?” I said. I wanted her to go away.
She looked me over.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Ask me something?”
“Yeah. What’s your name?”
“Is that your question?”
“No,” she said. “I want to make sure I feel comfortable with you before I ask you what I want to ask you. Makes sense?”
I said sure and told her my name.
“Okay, Gavin, where you from?”
I told her.
“How old are you?”
I told her.
“What’s your favorite hobby?”
I didn’t know why it mattered if she knew what I liked to do. But she was insistent and I was too tired to move. So I told her my favorite hobby: reading.
She continued, “Favorite thing about camp?”
“I like the lake,” she said.
“Then why aren’t you swimming?”
“I like the lake, not the swimming.”
“Can’t swim?” she repeated. “Because I’m black?”
“What?” I exclaimed, embarrassed. “That’s not what I meant.”
She cracked a smile. “Just fucking with you,” she said. “I’m a good swimmer. A great swimmer. I just don’t like swimming with other people.” She reclined in her chair, tucking her hands behind her head. “Hey, do you wanna know more about me?” she asked, but before I could say no, she continued, “I was born premature in a small hospital in Tennessee. I was no bigger than a dollar bill.” She eyed me with a smile, making sure I was paying attention. “My mother left when I was six. A year or so later my dad moved the two of us to North Carolina to live a better life. And you know what? One day, my dad was pulled over because he was a black man driving an expensive car.”
“Maybe he was speeding,” I said, my interest piqued.
“Nope,” she said. “It was what he called ‘profiling.’ He was arrested and released from jail the next day, no apology given. Then we moved to a small town in Iowa, where he wouldn’t be arrested for driving while black. Since I’m an only child and since I don’t like hanging out with the other kids on my block, I asked my dad if I could go here, to Camp Bur Oak, and meet kids just like me. He agreed, obviously.”
She amused me, though it took me a moment to realize she was trying to befriend me. When she finished, I felt comfortable enough talking about my family. “I was four when my dad left,” I said. “The court proceedings went by without any problems—except when my dad’s mistress, the reason for the divorce, showed up and called my mom so many mean names that the bailiff had to drag the mistress out of the room.” I laughed to myself. “My mom gained full custody of me, and a year later, he moved to a different state with his mistress. Then my mom got engaged to a woman named Viv. They’re in love.”
I waited for her to say something. She turned to the lake, which shimmered under the open sky. Then she eyed me and said, “Both gay?” And then: “That’s cool.”
Proud that I’d told her, I relaxed.
“So,” she added. “Ready for the question?”
“The one I wanted to work my way toward. It might seem mean.”
She hesitated, then asked, “How long have you been fat?”
The question offended me at first. Then I found myself smiling. “Don’t know,” I said. “How long have you been black?”
She grinned. “Touché.” She extended a hand. “I’m Monique.”
We shook hands as though we had just made a pact and watched the other campers caper in the lake.
Between lunch and dinner, Seth said we could do anything we wanted, so long as Ms. Lynn didn’t find out. She still didn’t know I switched cabins. I assumed Mr. Blackmoore knew about the switch, since he called me out for forgetting his name at orientation, but I assumed he didn’t care, because he didn’t say anything about it. In the afternoon, Monique and I spoke more by the lake before going our separate ways, she to the arts and crafts cabin to make something for her dad, and I to Cabin 8 to read under a sunlit window. At dinner, I listened to Monique talk to the other girls about the dreamcatcher she made. But I couldn’t stop feeling that a gun was being pointed at my head.
I looked behind me, my neck hairs bristling. Quinn and Devante sat in the far corner of the mess hall, glancing at me. Whispering. Muttering.
I finished dinner in silence, then asked Seth if I could go to bed early.
“My stomach hurts,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Go straight to the cabin. Tomorrow, you can tell me the real reason you don’t want to spend time with the other campers.”
Ashamed, I turned to the floor. “I’m not feeling well,” I said. Now I meant it.
“Did something happen?” he said.
“It’s nothing. My feet hurt. That’s all.”
“Your feet? I thought it was your stomach.”
I hesitated. “That too.”
He leaned down and touched my shoulder. It felt strange. A warm, sensitive touch.
“Next time, be honest,” he said, and patted me on the shoulder. “Okay, buddy?”
I didn’t want to keep on lying, so I nodded.
Seth’s hand had left a warm spot on my shoulder, which I touched on my way to Cabin 8. I hoped the warm spot would last a long, long time.
During breakfast the next day, I ate with Monique and told her about a dream I’d had the previous night: I was on trial and Seth was the judge. I couldn’t remember what was said, but whatever I was charged with, I knew I was guilty.
Monique shook her head and said, “Dreams are shit.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Just random pictures inside your head.”
“This dream felt special.”
“All dreams feel special.”
After breakfast, Monique’s counselor and Seth told us that our cabins were going to learn how to paddle canoes. As we started toward the dock, I asked Monique, “Have you ever heard of the word sodo?”
“Sodo?” she said. “Never heard of it. Is that really a word?”
“I guess,” I said. “Two guys from Cabin 6, Devante and Quinn, told me it’s short for sodomite. When guys like other guys.”
At the dock, we got into the first canoe we saw. She took the seat behind me and asked, “Why do you ask?”
I looked back. “Ask what?”
“Whether I know the word sodo.”
I shrugged. Seth got into our canoe and started to pass out life jackets.
“Gavin,” Monique said. “About your dream.”
“Do you think your dream has something to do with sodos?”
I paused to think. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Yeah. Dreams are shit, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe.”
Later that day, my cabin played soccer Mr. Blackmoore’s. I played a goalie. Devante and Quinn were the best Cabin 8 players. They seized the ball with fancy foot moves, charged forward in long strides, their legs like runaway carts tearing up the grass. They made several goals, some of which were scored when the ball rebounded off my stomach, full force. In the last play of the game, Devante kicked the ball and it plowed me in the stomach. I tried to dodge, but he was fast. I hugged my chest. Doubled over. Heaved once, twice, the taste of vomit and blood in the back of my throat.
Seth and Mr. Blackmoore ran over to me.
“Need to see the nurse?” Seth asked.
I shook my head.
“Walk it off,” said Mr. Blackmoore. “Or sleep it off.”
I got up and started across the field with Mr. Blackmoore and Seth. I overheard them whisper to each other.
“My call sheet says Gavin’s one of my campers,” said Mr. Blackmoore. “Why did he switch cabins?”
“Does it matter?” Seth said. “He wouldn’t last a day as your camper.”
“But the call sheet—”
“He’s a good kid,” Seth said. “I see a lot of me in him.”
I wanted to hug Seth, but my stomach still hurt. While I trudged away, I peered over to Devante and Quinn. They were talking to each other before the next game. They turned to me and pushed forward their stomachs, pretending to be fat. Fat like me.
Suddenly, I knew. I knew as if they had told me themselves: they’d kicked the ball at my stomach on purpose. I wanted every part of me to pour out of my body like air from a zeppelin—the sorrow, the shame. I kept my head down and continued toward the cabin. Once there, I climbed into bed and forced myself to finish the encyclopedia. The last forty pages went by slowly. I retained little. Senseless trivia. According to the clock on the wall, it was four in the afternoon. I shoved the book off the bed and fell asleep.
My nap lasted what felt like a minute. I didn’t dream. At least, I couldn’t remember if I’d dreamed at all. Seth was at my side.
“Feeling better?” he asked. He raised my shirt and touched my stomach. I cringed. We looked at my stomach’s small, circular bruise—light brown, purplish perimeter. He lowered my shirt. “I’m no doctor, but I think you’re going to die.”
He asked, “Are you up for some fun?”
It was late at night. I slept at least five hours. We walked outside, where the five other Cabin 8 boys stood waiting. One carried Seth’s telescope. Seth turned on a flashlight and said to us, “There’s a special place I like to go. Follow me.”
We began to ascend a tall hill, the camp darkening. We kept close to the beam of the flashlight. Our sneakers made crunching and cracking noises along the way, fallen sticks and leaves snapping underfoot. Owl hoots rained from the treetops, causing some of us to tremble. Wet dirt clung to our shoes, making it even harder to walk, but we didn’t care. We were excited, lumbering through the night well after curfew. Soon, we made it to the top, where the air smelled of blooming lilacs.
While the music of crickets, cicadas, and locusts echoed around us, the treetops below shined under the moon like white mushroom heads. Seth set up the telescope, and while the other campers took turns looking through it and chatted about what they saw, Seth and I stood off to the side and looked up. Bats flew past us in the moonlight while purple clouds pulled themselves over and then away from the moon like the ebb and flow of water. The moon’s halo spilled out into the darkness like meltwater. Stars, billions of them, shimmered like white knifepoints.
I looked over at Seth. He told me, “My girlfriend loves the nighttime sky.”
Girlfriend? I’d almost forgotten.
He continued, “My girlfriend and I, we never feel closer together than when we look up into the night sky. We feel taller, somehow. In real life, we’re so small, so unimportant. But together, we become important, you know? We make ourselves be important.”
My fingers felt clammy, as I moved closer to Seth, my hand extended, ready to touch his fingers. I’d never held another guy’s hand before. Maybe my dad’s, but this time would be different. I wanted to draw closer to Seth. Closer in all ways.
He looked in my direction. He didn’t seem to notice my hand.
Suddenly abashed, I withdrew.
He told me, “Your turn.”
I turned around. It was my turn to look through the telescope. He gestured me over with his eyes and I went. I wanted to go back to the cabin and curse my mom and Viv for making me come here. I heard Seth walk over, and I eased up the moment he patted me on the back. I gazed through the telescope, infinity pressed against my pupil.
I hated snakes, but I loved learning about them. The encyclopedia I’d brought to Camp Bur Oak was full of snake trivia. On the third day of camp, I reread the sections about the copperhead snake, the milk snake, the copperbelly water snake, and my personal favorite, the brown snake. A snake with brown or gray scales, with black spots on its belly, with a black V under the eye—the brown snake reminded me of me: common, not uniquely special.
But I wanted to show that I wasn’t just an insecure eleven-year-old who’d rather read than participate with the other campers. I wanted to fit in. Right after breakfast, I asked Seth if our cabin and Monique’s cabin could take a scenic walk in the lower parts of the woods. I remembered the hike we took on the first day. In the underbrush, sunshine had seemed nonexistent, nothing but knotted, fragrant ferns and cold breezes. The perfect climate for many Iowan snakes.
Seth liked my suggestion and invited Monique’s cabin to join them. Monique’s counselor didn’t care what they did, so long as it didn’t involve vigorous exercise. Mr. Blackmoore overheard us and came over.
“You already took a hike,” he said. “The rules say you have to vary the camp activities.”
“You’re right,” Seth said. “The rules do say that.”
“Yes, they do,” said Mr. Blackmoore.
“Yes,” Seth repeated. “But I don’t entirely like rules. And if I’m correct, didn’t your cabin play soccer for the last two days?”
Mr. Blackmoore hesitated.
“That’s what I thought,” Seth said. “I have an idea.”
I knew where this was going. Seth called over Ms. Lynn and asked if all the campers could hike and learn about the history of the camp together. Her smile grew, and she said yes. I wasn’t pleased, but at least I had Monique. And Seth.
The campers, all twenty-four of us, soon started to ascend a trail lined with maidenhair spleenwort ferns, which I recently read about in the encyclopedia. Ms. Lynn, our guide, started talking about the camp’s history, but I was listening to Monique. And eyeing Seth.
“My dad’s got a new girlfriend, a white woman,” Monique said. “She gives me hair clips every time we meet.” She gestured at the neon yellow butterfly clips in her cornrows. “Aren’t they nice?”
“Yeah.” I glanced at Seth. “They’re good.”
“She’s a nice woman,” she went on. “She could’ve married a rich man, but she wanted to live a simple life.”
“That’s good.” I watched as Seth laughed at something Mr. Blackmoore said.
“I mean, someday I hope to marry a man. A rich black man.”
“Oh?” she said. “Well, if I can’t marry a rich black man, do you think I could love a sodo?”
My brain stalled like a bad motor. I almost tripped over my own feet, I was so bewildered by the question.
She said, “Not paying attention?”
“What?” I stammered. “I was paying attention.”
Seth stopped suddenly. Monique and I stopped right behind him. “Something’s wrong,” Seth said.
Mr. Blackmoore counted the campers. “Quinn and Devante must’ve wandered off.”
“Oh?” Seth said. “Need help looking for them?”
I raised my hand. My heart palpitated as Monique, Mr. Blackmoore, and Seth turned toward me. “Monique and I can help you find them. I know a lot about plants and animals. It’s easy to confuse poisonous berries with nonpoisonous ones. And it’s easy to confuse venomous snakes with harmless ones. They could get hurt.”
“Thank you, Gavin,” Seth said.
My face was hot. Everything around me was still green, green, green. I could barely distinguish one tree, one bush, from another. I could barely distinguish one snake from another too. In my mind, the names of trees and snakes converged like a mad science experiment: the boa elk, the diamondback water pine. But I kept my head up and smiled with gratitude, willing to do anything to please him.
Seth said, “I appreciate the initiative, Gavin, but—”
“I don’t mind helping,” I said.
“I know. But too dangerous. Dylann and I will look for them. Go on ahead.”
Seth and Mr. Blackmoore walked back to the mess hall. Monique and I rejoined the other campers farther down the path, where Ms. Lynn was still talking. Secretly, I hoped Seth and Mr. Blackmoore would never find them. I hoped Seth and Mr. Blackmoore would just give up and rejoin us and Ms. Lynn. I hoped Devante and Quinn had fallen from a ravine—not dead, but maybe maimed. Brooding, I trudged off the path. I didn’t care if Ms. Lynn or anyone else realized I was gone. I heard someone behind me, though I kept on going. Monique ran up beside me.
“Hey,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just go.”
“No way. You might eat a poisonous berry or get bitten by a venomous snake.”
“Don’t mock me.”
“I’m having a bad day.”
Not too far away—laughter.
Monique and I exchanged uneasy looks, then descended a nearby hill. We came across a sunlit clearing overcrowded with weeds. We stopped and looked on, at Quinn and Devante. They were striking the ground with leafy sticks. We noticed it flinching and flailing in retaliation at the base of the boulder. A brown snake.
Monique shoved Quinn and Devante aside.
“What the fuck?” she said. “You’re hurting it!”
“Piss off,” Devante said, and elbowed her back.
“We’ll tell on you!”
“Shut up,” Quinn said. “Shut up, blackey.”
She stared at him. I couldn’t believe it myself; I’d never heard anyone say anything racist in person before. As I moved closer to Monique and caught a better look of her face, I discovered in her eyes a pain, icy as snowmelt. I thought she was going to cry, but instead, she balled her hands.
“What’d you say?” she demanded.
She looked at Devante for support. He was not as black as she was, but he was still dark skinned. He glanced at her apathetically, offering no support.
“Go back to your stupid nature walk,” Quinn said. He looked over at me. “And take the sodo too.”
My face flushed steam hot, my stomach hurt, my jaw tensed. I couldn’t open my mouth to defend myself, to curse him out, to sob. I looked away for a moment, unable to process the swarm of emotions flooding through me.
“Don’t fuck with me, white trash,” Monique said.
“Funny,” Quinn said. “Fuck with you? Don’t fuck with me, nigger.”
All the air escaped from my lungs.
She punched him in the gut. It brought him to his knees. Devante shoved her. She tripped over a tangle of weeds and I helped her up.
Then Quinn screamed.
Quinn looked on his left shoulder and froze. Devante and Monique, who was now on her feet, took a step beside me, just several feet away from Quinn, who was still shocked and panicked, not because he was punched, but because the brown snake had slithered around his left foot while he wasn’t paying attention.
“Don’t touch it!” I said, my voice shaky.
Quinn lowered his hand and looked at me. Devante and Monique looked at me as well. I cleared my throat. “It’s dangerous,” I said. “Venomous.”
“Get it off then!” Quinn said.
“Hold still,” Devante said.
“I can’t help it!”
Quinn kicked the snake, and as it landed several feet away, he and Devante fled up a nearby hill. The snake retreated too, slithering to an open spot of sun, fearful and then peaceful, quiet as a pile of leaves.
Monique and I laughed until our tears of indignation turned into tears of happiness. We climbed up the hill, our laughter dying out.
“Imagine if the snake had bitten them,” Monique said. “It wouldn’t have killed them, right?”
“No,” I said. “The brown snake’s not venomous.”
“What?” She sounded confused, then shocked. “Why did you—?”
“Because I could,” I said. “I read about the brown snake from a book I brought to camp.”
She looked even more shocked, processing my words carefully. Then she smiled and wrapped her left arm around my shoulders. “You sly bastard,” she said.
I couldn’t stop myself from beaming.
The rest of the day went by fast: lunch with Monique, an assortment of afternoon games with the girls in Cabin 2—a scavenger hunt near the lake, archery outside the arts and crafts cabin, and a beanbag tournament in front of Ms. Lynn’s cabin. I didn’t win any of the games. That was fine. I felt like a part of the group; some campers even bothered to know my name. And Seth—he watched me play and have fun, giving me the occasional thumbs up like an awkward soccer coach.
That night, during the campfire, he said to me in private, “Gavin, thank you for volunteering to help find Quinn and Devante, and thank you for participating in today’s activities. You’ve made a lot of progress, coming out of your shell. You should be proud.”
I smiled. He patted my back and walked away. I gazed into the fire.
“What do you see?” Monique teased.
The wood crackled, the fire writhed with and against the wind, and the heat caressed my forehead. I took a deep, comforting breath.
Monique waited for me to speak.
I replied, “I see myself.”
“Only if I push you in,” Monique said with a laugh, and handed me a s’more.
The next day Monique turned to me in the mess hall and whispered, “Want to skip lunch and skip stones at the lake?” Still elated from the incident with the brown snake, I thought I could do anything, say anything, be myself. We snuck out.
While we ascended the gravel path to the lake, we picked up stones, shiny ones with flat, rounded edges. We’d found only three by the time we reached the lake. We could’ve found more at the water’s edge, but time seemed to speed up the second I threw the first stone. It skipped twice before plopping into the lake.
Monique and I turned around. Devante and Quinn—they were coming right at us.
I stumbled back, and Monique balled her hands. It was as if she’d been planning for this moment since yesterday’s fight.
“Fucking liar,” Quinn said, looking right at me. Monique was like a brick wall between us. “Mr. Blackmoore just told us that brown snakes aren’t venomous.”
“So?” Monique demanded.
“So,” Devante said, “we demand respect.”
“We want”—Quinn pointed at me—“an apology. Or else.”
“Or else what?” Monique said. “You’re gonna hurt us?”
“No,” Devante said. “Just the sodo.”
I felt weak. I stepped back, my shoes now submerged in water. I hoped I would dissolve in the lake and wash away someplace else. And yet, I remained here, preparing the worse.
“You sound stupid,” Monique said. “Sodo isn’t even a real word.”
“But I’m looking at one right now,” Quinn said.
His glare seared holes into my eyes. Before I could speak, Monique shoved Quinn and his face went bright red.
“You’re not gonna hurt him,” Monique said.
“All we want is an apology,” Devante said, “then we’ll leave.”
Silence. Devante, Monique, and I waited for Quinn to speak. He was breathing hard, cheeks taut, hands bunched up into hard, bony fists. Readying himself to rage forward. Finally, he spoke up—against Monique.
“Back. Off. Blackey.”
“Make me, whitey.”
Another silence. The warm air hung motionless around me. I felt my skin bristle, gooseflesh spreading down my arms, across my neck. My mouth went dry.
Quinn punched her. She fell onto the ground with a thud. Kicked Devante back when Quinn came at me. I shuffled away, but he grabbed my arm and threw me onto the gravel, which grazed my legs like tiny screws, and I groaned and swatted his face, still unable to form words, still unable to scream for help or mercy. He sat on top of me and squeezed my head between his hands, his nails digging into the back of my head. I could still hear him and the buzz and endless ringing of pain between my ears.
“Apologize!” he was saying.
I couldn’t breathe. My vision started to blacken, the world around me evaporating. I thought I would faint and wake up somewhere safe, like my bed in Cabin 8, or my bed at home. I stayed conscious, though, my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth.
“Say it!” he said. “Say you’re sorry, faggot!”
“Hey!” came a distant voice.
I looked around. It was Seth.
He shoved Devante off of Monique, then helped us up. Monique touched her jaw and winced. I touched my legs. Trickles of blood.
Seth exclaimed, “Devante, Quinn, to the mess hall. Now!”
Devante and Quinn eyed me. I assumed they were going to charge at me again, but they ambled off, cursing, throwing us the middle finger.
Seth touched Monique’s face. She winced again.
“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just gonna bruise.”
“See the nurse,” Seth said.
“What about Gavin?”
“Go or I’ll write you up!”
I’d never seen him angry before. His face was bright red, his eyes buggy. I wondered if he’d yell at me next. Monique looked at me for a second, sighed, and then left.
While Seth examined my legs, I found my voice, along with a torrent of tears.
“Should I,” I stuttered, “should I go to the nurse too?”
“No,” he said. He slung one of my arms over his neck. “With these scrapes, I don’t want you walking too far. There’s a supply cabin not too far from here.”
My legs begun to cramp, stinging from my knees to my feet. The cuts and bruises were small, but there was still blood. He helped me walk.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Anything for a camper.”
Inside the supply cabin were a rocking chair, a CRT TV, a workbench, and three racks full of cardboard boxes. I sat down in the chair. The cabin smelled of sawdust and mold; the window behind the workbench, the only window in the shack, let in a wide beam of light, which captured a haze of sawdust in the air. The place felt hot and sticky. I began to perspire, rivulet after rivulet of sweat falling down my cheeks. I licked my lips. The saltiness of my face was sharp on my tongue. I started to swing in the chair, waiting for Seth. He was rummaging through a cardboard box. With each swing, the chair creaked. I shivered with anticipation. Seth returned with bandages and a bottle of salve.
“Quinn must’ve tackled you into the gravel,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think there was glass in the gravel.”
“Probably.” He knelt in front of me and put a dab of salve on his left pointer finger. “You can’t imagine what I’ve found next to the lake. Old swim trunks. Broken soda bottles. Condoms.”
He spread the salve over the scrapes. I flinched.
“Sorry, buddy,” he said.
He applied more salve to my leg. Large, stinging globs. Then the pain started to subside. Next, the bandages. “There,” he said. “All good.”
I smiled with gratitude, then wondered about the lakeside condom wrapper. Who would leave them at a kids’ camp? I remembered Seth saying he had a girlfriend. While the campers slept, nothing would stop Seth’s girlfriend from sneaking into camp to spend time with Seth and his telescope under the stars, unused condoms burning holes in his back pockets.
I was about to cry. Ebullience, shame—the same mixed feelings I had since finding the dirty magazine. I heard Seth say something and I felt his hand on my knee. This was too much for me—the desire, the infatuation. I couldn’t say the word. Gay. The word could be used to describe my feelings, but I needed to conceal them from the world, where others might talk, might hurt me, as Quinn had. Gay. I didn’t want that life, I didn’t want that part of me, I didn’t want that voice inside my head telling me to give in to the compulsion, to decide if I really was it. Gay.
“Gavin,” Seth said, “are you okay?”
I leaned forward and kissed Seth on the lips.
He pulled back. I smiled, wanting him to say something, anything. I didn’t feel different. A part of me hoped that he’d now understand me completely. He smiled, but it wasn’t the smile I was hoping for.
“No,” he said. “Campers and counselors don’t do that.”
“But,” I stammered.
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and I felt my heart collapse.
“Let’s go, Gavin. Lunch will be over soon.”
I stood up. Hesitated. “But,” I repeated.
“Now.” His voice was soft. I followed him out.
We were in eyeshot of the mess hall when Monique approached us. Seth hurried on ahead.
“Looking better,” Monique said. “The nurse only gave me Tylenol.”
“That’s good,” I mumbled.
“Yeah, not really. She wouldn’t even give me an ice pack.”
“Oh? That’s good.”
I looked up. Her sly look.
“Ignoring me again?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, not entirely yes.”
She eyed me. “Have you been crying?”
I didn’t answer. We were almost to the mess hall.
She asked, “Did you tell Seth your secret?”
I turned away.
“Don’t feel ashamed,” she said.
We made it. Seth went on ahead. Monique stopped me at the door. Inside I could see the other campers finishing lunch. I noticed Quinn and Devante in the far corner of the room. My face flared, my body tensed.
“Don’t feel ashamed,” she repeated. “One of my cousins is like you.”
“You know . . .” She trailed off.
“Know what?” I demanded.
“Don’t get mad,” she said.
“I’m not mad. I’m confused—about you.”
“Why did you ask me about my weight? On the first day of camp.”
It was as if I was somewhere else, listening to someone else speak in my voice, articulate what I couldn’t articulate until now.
“Asking me about my weight was stupid.”
“I was trying to be funny,” she said, “but you’re right—it was stupid. So let’s forget it.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Leave me alone.”
“Why?” she demanded. “Tell me.”
“Tell me,” she pleaded. I started to get lightheaded. “What’s wrong?”
For a moment I didn’t think I said it. But I did.
I went on, “I’m gay because at home I have this magazine of naked women, but I don’t care about them, because I have strange feelings for the guy on the last page, this naked model who reminds me of Seth, who I just kissed and I thought it would mean something special, I thought it would help me understand what I’ve been feeling and I thought everything would make sense.”
“Gavin,” she said.
“I don’t care,” I cried. “I don’t care how others think of me.”
I wiped the tears from my eyes.
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Don’t turn around.”
But I did. And my heart sank.
All the other campers were looking at me.
Quinn and Devante were laughing at me.
For the first time, I lost the ability to reason. I balled my hands. My face felt so hot I thought I was going to pass out, but I stayed conscious. I ran forward and jostled past the other campers. I thought I heard Seth come up behind me to save me from myself. But he wasn’t there. Quinn and Devante were in front of me.
I slugged them. Tackled them to the floor.
Spat in their faces.
I was carried away. I looked back.
It was Seth and Ms. Lynn.
“What’s wrong?” Ms. Lynn said. No smile, no joy in her voice.
They dragged me outside. I dropped to my knees and wept.
“Gavin, what’s going on?” Ms. Lynn said.
“I want. To go.”
“Where?” Seth said.
I looked into his eyes and felt nothing for him.
“Home,” I said. “I want to go home.”
I sat in Ms. Lynn’s office. Quinn’s and Devante’s parents stood over me. My mom stood by me. When I spoke about Devante and Quinn hurting me and Monique at the lake, I didn’t mention that they had called me names outside my original cabin and at the clearing with the brown snake. I couldn’t make myself mention any of the extra details.
My mom and the other parents agreed to pay for each other kids’ medical expenses and let that be that. An hour later, my mom drove me home in silence.
That night, I found the dirty magazine. My feelings for the naked man were still there, along with the shameful pain in my gut, the shameful buzz in my brain. But I was ready to speak about it. Ready to let my shame spill out, I put the magazine under my bed and walked downstairs for dinner. My mom and Viv were in the kitchen. I cleared my throat. “Mom, Viv,” I began, “there’s something I need to say.”
It was uneventful: I spoke, then my mom spoke, then Viv spoke. They accepted me. We ate dinner. And we left things at that.
A couple weeks later, Monique found my number and called to say hello. She told me Quinn’s parents had agreed to pay restitution for her bruised chin and for their son calling her those racist names.
“Wouldn’t be the first time my family was harassed,” she said. “My dad was profiled. Remember? Back in North Carolina.”
She said the rest of camp wasn’t fun, because I wasn’t there to keep her company. “Gavin,” she said, “you were the only friend I made at camp. Then you had to fuck it all up by leaving me behind.” She laughed. “I wished I could’ve punched the living shit out of them. Especially Quinn.”
I laughed too.
“Sorry,” I said. “Next time I get into a fight, I’ll call you.”
We spoke some more and then said our goodbyes.
Almost every night for the rest of summer vacation I sat in my backyard and looked up at the stars, the hiss of snakes, the aroma of dirt and flowers around me. Night was a second home to me, and I felt better, more confident, knowing my place—no matter how small it was—in the vast, vast universe.