Spring 2014

Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright



Nonfiction

Camp

Gretchen VanWormer


The drama building is full of it:  bat guano.  So one of our duties this week is to use wide brooms to shove the shit out the back door, into some slippery ferns. This isn’t the last time the theater will need to be cleaned; these suckers aren’t going anywhere.  But at least we can make a dent in the crap-carpet they’ve been laying for months.  This way, when the campers arrive next week, the shit will be manageable. 

           The bats hang upside down in the rafters of the building, almost invisible.  If not for the guano, I doubt we’d even know they were up there, wings wrapped around themselves, dreaming of insects. 

           “Yeck!” we say.  “Bleh!”  The dusty shit clings to the sweat on our arms and legs as we sweep.  I’m sixteen; I think Loren is seventeen.  He and I take breaks to chug water and gossip about the other counselors.  This isn’t out of spite, but a kind of love.  This is camp:  we’re loose-lipped because we’re tight.  Later, when we meet up with the other counselors, I’m sure Loren and I will find time to gossip about each other.  I don’t know what he’ll say about me, but talk about Loren tends to circle back to:  He is, isn’t he?  I mean, how could he not be? 

           One of the bats lets out a soft squeak.  The sound echoes, and we glance up to the rafters to try to spy its source, but all we see are sketchy shadows. 

*

Loren makes me laugh; that’s why I’ve hooked onto him like a bat to a rafter and made him my friend.  Camp is snug, but isolating; it’s as if there’s been a nuclear attack, and only you few have survived.  You’d better bond fast, or you’ll be cast out into the barren wasteland with just your whistle and a gimp keychain.

            I’m happy to be hanging with Loren, but I can’t help comparing our relationship to some of the other camp pairings, especially Molly and Kevin.  Wednesday evening, we all camp out to get the hang of how the place feels at night.  This is day camp, but the kids will have one overnight every two-week session, so we need to know what they’re in for.

            Summer in Vermont is hot days and cold nights.  There are lots of places for us to sleep, but the drama building is the most tempting.  The building gets you off the ground, for one, so you don’t wake up in a puddle of dew.  Plus it’s indoors, where it might be a tad warmer.  The big negative, though, is the bats, who have their own nighttime agenda. 

            “They’re diving!  They’re diving!” one counselor cries.  Brooms are waved frantically.  There are blood-curdling screams, as well as one hyperbolic suggestion that a bat is stuck in a girl’s hair. 

            “Gretch.  Oh my god.  I can’t even, like, handle it,” Loren says. 

           We go outside.  I can’t stop laughing.  But I also can’t stop noticing that Molly has been sitting outside in the dark with Kevin for a while.  Earlier we all sat in a circle, telling stories, but the group slowly broke off as counselors got tired and stumbled away to find their sleeping bags.  When Loren and I headed for the drama building, I assumed Molly and Kevin would soon follow.  Now, though, it’s clear something juicy is going on there.  The two are in moon shadows, sitting close in the grass, and it looks as though they might be holding hands, leaning into each other.  

           I want to gossip with Loren about this, but earlier he told me that he used to have a big crush on Molly.  When he told me this, I just blinked.  Like the others, I’ve been assuming Loren is gay.  (He is, isn’t he?  I mean, how could he not be?)  He’s slightly built, and his hips swish when he walks.  His voice has a feminine lilt.  These are all stereotypes, of course, but knowing they’re stereotypes leaves me no less convinced.  

           I think it over, and decide that Loren is gay, but not comfortable sharing it yet.  Vermont is left-winged, but this is pre-Will and Grace.  And surely it’s never been an easy conversation.  Maybe Loren’s strategy has been to say he’s interested in a girl who isn’t interested in him.  Something along the lines of (hand across the forehead):  “Gosh, I am super into girls, it’s just that the one I like doesn’t like me.  Lust is so unfair!”

           I’m curious about Molly and Kevin, but I also want to go along with Loren’s “crush.”  And part of going along with his story is not mentioning Molly and Kevin.  This way, Loren won’t have to act hurt at Molly’s interest in another, and I won’t have to pretend to comfort his “hurt.” 

           The bats come pouring out of the drama building, heading toward the lake, making those noises they make.  It’s called echolocation—how bats find their food in the dark.  They make a sound, and wait until it returns to them.   

           Loren and I unroll our sleeping bags on one of the porches and sleep outside; a few other counselors join us.  I’m not sure what happens to Molly and Kevin—it’s too dark now to see, but they’re not with us.  I keep my mouth shut, and spend half the night slapping my sunburn to keep the bugs away, the other half shivering in the bottom of my sleeping bag.    

*

Loren says, “Gretch, I was thinking that Saturday we could have lunch, and then you could help me find a new mustard shirt.  Because my old mustard shirt isn’t mustard anymore. It’s, like, yellow.”

            I love these lines.  But they’re too much if he wants me to believe him when he acts jealous of Molly and Kevin, which he later does.  Or at least he acts relieved to know they’re not having sex. 

           “Molly said she told Kevin that she doesn’t do that,” Loren says.

            “Oh,” I say. 

            “He’s older than her, you know.  So that’s, like, not happening.”

            “Hmm,” I say.

            “Seriously.  She told him.  She is not that kind of girl.”

            “Uh huh.” 

            A few weeks later, though, Molly whispers to me, “So, yeah.  That’s changed.  I wasn’t going to, but…”  She laughs, then whispers again, “I like it.”

            I don’t tell Loren.  This doesn’t mean he hasn’t heard, but if he has, he’s acting like he hasn’t.   

           Meanwhile, I’ve got my own jealousies.  Loren and I have been hanging out with Molly and Kevin whenever we’re not at camp.  From a non-camper’s perspective, I’m sure the four of us look like we’re double-dating.  This gets under my skin, because I can’t help but think that if things were different—if Loren weren’t gay—then maybe I’d have what Molly has:  a summer of love or lust.  I’m sixteen, and that’s what I’ve been hoping for.

            There are other guys at camp, but Loren’s the one closest to my age; the others are college students in their 20s.  They say things like, “Hey Gretchen—want to get wet?”  And I say, “It’s too cold for swimming,” pretending not to know that their question has two shadows.    

           Later, this will become a bit of a theme—my staying out of the water.  I’ll lie on the dock with my feet dangling in the lake while my campers canoe, the male lifeguard calling, “Mush!  Mush!” to time their strokes.  When I do venture into the murky lake, I’ll often be holding a little girl from my group who is scared of the water, but will go in if I’m carrying her.  I should encourage her to blow bubbles, be brave, but I don’t.

*

“Well, I guess that’s my cue,” Loren says after I yawn. 

           We’ve been at a barbeque with Molly and Kevin and a few other camp people.  It’s getting late, and I’m tired.  If Loren were my boyfriend, then his noticing of my yawn, and his offer to head home, would be sweet.  But he’s not my boyfriend.  So instead I kind of glare at him while he looks at me adoringly. 

           “What?” he says.

           “Nothing,” I say.  “I’m just tired.” 

           He gives me a ride home.  He is my boyfriend in this way—he always drives.

           A few weeks later, there’s a new layer to this drama.  The morning before the overnight, I see that one of our counselors-in-training is standing off by herself, looking upset.  When I walk over and ask her what’s wrong, she tightens her mouth and scowls.  Finally she says:  “I have a big crush on Loren.  But when I told him about it, he said he has a big crush on you.” 

           I blink, then say, “I’m sorry.” 

           “Did you know?” she says, wiping her eyes on the cuffs of her sweatshirt.

           “No,” I say.  “I had no idea.”    

           She sniffles.  “Yeah, well, neither did I.”

           “I’m sorry,” I say again.  I give her a hug, and she trudges back to her group.

           This information throws me for a minute, but then I figure I must be the new Molly—the girl Loren’s claiming as a crush so he can let that counselor-in-training down easy. 

           I’m not jazzed to be put in this role, but safety is seductive, and having Loren as my “boyfriend” is certainly safe.  So I convince myself that the supportive thing to do is to play along.  I think of Loren as one of my best friends.  If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then, fine.

           That afternoon, though, when Lauren tries to tickle me, I’m surprised to hear myself snap at him:  “Stop that.  I hate that.”  It’s not a new thing—him tickling me—so I’m not sure why I’m reacting this way.  He seems hurt, and I feel guilty.  But I tell myself that I’m trying, doing my best to effect “happy camper.” 

*

I don’t think I’m testing him, but it’s possible I am.  We’re down by the waterfront later that day, joking around, when Loren says something parental or protective to me, and I respond by taking the mouthful of bottled water I was about to swallow and spitting it in his face. 

            “Oh my God.  Gretch!  That was, like, in your mouth.  You just spit on me.  Oh my God.  That is so gross.”  He’s not playing; he’s annoyed.

           I let out a mean little laugh.  There, I want to say.  Now tell me about your crush.  Because boys that have crushes on you aren’t repulsed by your spit, your mouth.  

           But I just hand him my towel and say, “Here, dry off.” 

*

We call them the “teen” group—the 11, 12, and 13-year-olds.  And because they are the oldest campers, we put them in the drama building for the overnight.  The younger campers will sleep on porches.  That is the plan.

            The “teens” can be heard shrieking and laughing; they seem to be having a great time.  It starts to rain, though, and the wind is blowing it sideways.  Our youngest campers are six years old, and for many of them, it’s their first night away from their parents.  We don’t have tents, just sleeping bags.  There’s no place to hide.  This whole porch scene just isn’t working for them.

            We end up sheltering the younger campers in what our camp director calls “the old drama building.”  It’s small and rustic, but bat-free.  This is where Loren, Molly, and I end up (along with some others).  “Old drama.”

            Some of us put our sleeping bags up on the stage so we can look over the kids that are snoozing below; others spread themselves out between the kids.  We usher campers back and forth to the bathrooms a few buildings away, and at one point Loren and I find ourselves outside at the same time. 

           This is when he says to me:  “Gretch.  Everyone’s saying I’m gay.  But I’m not.”

           I don’t know why he’s saying this to me now.  Maybe he knows his “confession” to the counselor-in-training circled back to me and he’s trying to address it.  Or maybe it’s because I snapped at him when he tried to tickle me, or spat on him by the waterfront.  Maybe it has nothing to do with any of these things; I’ll never know.        

            I stand there for a second, waiting for him to say more.  Something like, “I mean, I don’t think I’m gay.  But I guess it’s possible.”  Something I could believe, work with.  He doesn’t, though.  And my silence only seems to be making things worse; he’s tensing up, locking his jaw.

            Finally I make a noise like, “Mmm,” or “Hmm”—the kind of sound you make when you want to convey sympathy without having to choose words.  I don’t want to have to say, “Of course you’re not gay,” or “Don’t worry, I don’t think you’re gay,” because those words are guano.  And I’m getting sick of this shit.    

             Our kids come out from the bathrooms, and we walk them back to the old drama building. 

           When we get inside, Loren moves his sleeping bag away from mine with a flourish. 

*

Bat Boy:  The Musical is based on the Weekly World News article about a half-boy, half-bat who is discovered living in a cave in West Virginia.  In the musical, Bat Boy is frustrated with his bat-side, and wants to become more human.  There’s plenty of silliness (in one scene, Bat Boy sings “Apology to a Cow” to the cow whose blood he’s just sucked).  But it doesn’t end well for Bat Boy.   

           The angry neighbors, at least, seem to take something away from their experience.  They close by singing: 

           Hold your Bat Boy, Touch your Bat Boy


           No more need to hide!


           Know your Bat Boy, Love your Bat Boy


           Don't deny your beast inside!


I say this not to suggest that Loren is Bat Boy, or that sexuality is some kind of beast.  That, too, would be guano.  As the summer wears on, though, the feeling between Loren and I has evolved into what I’ll later come to recognize as lust-gone-bad:  what happens when you want someone you can’t have, and that sexual frustration morphs into a beastly anger, meanness, or disgust.    

           It’s hard enough to accept that this is where you’ve landed—this lust-turned-disgust—when you still kind of want the person.  But the trouble with Loren and me is that we don’t want each other, and never have.  We just want to want each other.  Or rather, we want the other to become someone whom we could want.

           Loren is a “boy,” and I am his “girlfriend,” and we are in a “relationship,” just not the one we “want.”  And this has made us both “batshit.”

*

It’s a myth that bats are blind.  Scientists have shown that they’re able to distinguish patterns even in low light. 

           Loren sees the tacky pattern our friendship has become, and removes himself from its yellowing presence before I realize that’s even what’s happened.  Soon after the overnight, a counselor invites everyone to a party at her apartment.  Loren and I haven’t talked much since he exited the stage in “old drama,” but I’m still hopeful that our friendship hasn’t gone into the crapper.  I call to see if he’s going to the party, and he’s quick to say that he is, but that his car is full, so he can’t give me a ride.

           For us, there’s no such thing as a full car.  Friends can always be layered in the back seat to form a kind of sedimentary lap stratum.  The trunk can fit at least two.  An old bungee cord can even help secure a friend to the bumper or the roof.  There simply is no unacceptable place to stow a friend within (or on) a moving vehicle.  These are the rules, and Loren and I both know it.  So when I say, “Are you sure?” I’m not really talking about the ride.           

           My feeling is:  Maybe we can still be friends? 

           His feeling is:  Bitch, no.

           “Really?” I say.

           “Oh my God,” he says.  “You’re, like, begging.”  

           I still go to the party, but with another friend.  Loren alternately ignores and sneers at me.  It’s all very “ex-boyfriend.”  So this must be the end; we have broken up. 

           Molly and Kevin get engaged.  I can’t believe their luck, to have found their “one.”  But shortly thereafter, Molly calls to say they’ve gotten into a massive fight, and he’s told her to hock the ring, “It’s over.”  Of course, it’s not over over—they get back together a few weeks later.  But surely something’s over. 

           I think of when Loren told me he wasn’t gay, and how the sound that returned to him—my mmm or hmmm—must’ve said:  this isn’t what you’re looking for.  Flourish.  End scene.  And I wonder if that was the end of us, and I just didn’t hear it right.

           Really, though, I think our story ends back in “old drama.”  After Loren’s exit, I don’t follow to see if he’s okay.  I don’t ask about his tricky conversation with the young counselor-in-training.  And I don’t apologize for the gossip—how it must’ve shadowed his every hip swish.    

           I remain onstage in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sound of Loren’s light footsteps to return to me.  When they don’t, I close my eyes like a dingbat and hunker down into the sweeping silence.  




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