We were all freezing when we left the water. We were shivering so hard, no one even noticed how naked we all were. We were rushing for our towels, then drying ourselves with them best we could. That turned into helping dry each other, and with that came an eventual recognition that we were entirely unclothed, and how sexy that was. That’s when the giggling started.
It was also when we all stopped helping each other get dry and buffed warm and dry, and our concentration fixated on our own partners. While I was making sure Evan was getting warm, and he me, I also watched the others, especially Nick and Dillon because, of all of us except possibly Evan and me, those two were the newest to this sort of thing.
They were a little shy, a little awkward, but they both had the wonder in their eyes that showed what they were feeling. There was a certain bashfulness being together like this in the nude; I doubted they’d ever been naked with any other boy before. I wondered if this nudity could be bringing them even closer together. I knew they did really like each other and that they’d been disguising it with all their verbal sparring. Perhaps just now was the first time they were allowing themselves to fully understand any of this—the first time they fully realized how much their feelings were mutual.
When we were all dry, we made a run for our clothes. Evan lit the fire, telling me he was a practiced woodsman. I thought of several ways I could have used that woodsman crack, but the boys were all there helping get things ready for dinner, and they were young enough that I thought it was better to drop the subject. The atmosphere had already been sexy enough, and the night was still to come.
I’d brought hotdogs as being the easiest thing to cook. I showed the boys how to whittle straight green sticks to a point, shove them lengthwise into a wiener, and then hold them high enough over the fire and slowly twist them so the meat would cook without being burned. Okay, so a dinner of wieners and pop wasn’t the healthiest meal, but they cooked it themselves and were famished from the swimming, and you’d have thought they were dining high on the hog that night. Well, maybe they were; man, those dogs did taste fine! I had no idea what part of the animal hot dogs came from or even if they had any pork at all in them, but thought the metaphor still fit.
We sat around the fire afterwards. It was getting dark by then. The fire had worked its way down to bright coals, occasionally breaking out into a moment or two of flame, then settling back into a vibrant glow. Evan showed everyone how to make s’mores, and the kids caught on quickly. Nick turned out to be a gently-brown-the-marshmallow-all-over sort of person where Dillon was a burn-that-sucker-black type, and that led to more arguing, although the tone of it was much different now. It was playful and impish, coquettish and flirtatious with no rancor at all.
The mood changed as the night darkened. The glow and heat of the embers seemed to invade our imaginations, stirring something inside of us, and we fell silent. We stayed that way for a time. Then, after we had finally all settled back, after having gorged ourselves on melted chocolate, after lapsing into a semi-conscious quietude, Sam was the one who started the conversation.
“I’ve never been so happy,” he said. Colley’s head was on his shoulder, and their hands were firmly clasped. There was a wistfulness in his voice. I wondered what future he was looking at that brought that tinge of sorrow into what he was envisioning. I was sure it had something to do with Colley’s cross-country move that was pending.
“Me, too.” That was Zach. He was next to Rad, the two sitting as close to each other as it was possible for two boys to do. “This has been a great, just a great summer, the best I’ve ever had.” He sighed, and I wondered if he was feeling a little of what Sam was. Was it just that the camp didn’t have that many more days remaining. Or maybe that this happiness they were feeling couldn’t last?
Maybe that was true. At the age these kids were, would they feel the same thing a year from now? Five years? Were these just first loves that would transition into other loves, deeper loves? Or would their current feelings grow and remain constant? Sometimes that really did happen.
I glanced at Evan and found he was looking at me. I thought it possible that of all the kids around that fire, the two of us may have had the best chance. We had maturity on our side. But it wouldn't be all that sad, would it, if the younger kids all found different loves? They’d all have had a taste of what love was like. That was a good thing; I was sure of that—a preparation for what life had to offer them.
I stared into the embers, watching their subtle movements as they consumed themselves. Why was I feeling so maudlin? I guessed it was that tone Sam had, that sigh of Zach’s. I thought it best to lighten the mood.
“What was best about this summer? Colley? You go first. And don’t say ‘finding Sam.’ We’ll take that as a given, a default position for each of you. What, other than that?”
Colley raised his head off Sam’s shoulder. He looked as I’d thought he’d look when I’d first seen him. Laid back, smiling, easygoing, happy, untouched by any real problems . Now the embers were furnishing most of the light we had, and its glow darkened his red hair to black but couldn’t darken his smile or dull the irrepressible sparkle in his eyes. His response was spoken seriously, though, making him sound older than he was, but the boy underlying the words and thoughts was still the same lighthearted Colley. Simply pensive now.
“I learned a lot about myself. No one was telling me what to do and what not to do. That’s because of you, David. I think I needed that. I’m 12 and know I’m still mostly a little boy, but things are changing. I can feel it. I allowed myself to do that—change—this summer. It’s really odd how you can like being who you are and still welcome that you’re changing. Growing. I like being as young as I am, but I also wanted to take a step out into the adult world, and the neat thing was, I could do it here on my own terms, at my own speed. David, you allowed us all to do that—or not to do it if we didn’t want to. The boys playing all those games everyday, spending all their time swimming and stuff, they weren’t changing much. We were. All of us here. But, if and how we did it was entirely up to us. What I liked so much was the independence to make that choice for myself.”
Sam spoke without being asked. “I liked that, too. I’ve always wanted to write. Now I had both the time to do that and the inspiration that came from everything going on around me. I’ve written something while here that was great fun. It isn’t a great work of literature by any means, but I had a lot of fun doing it. I’d never written a skit before, but that’s what I did. I liked that, writing something that was entirely new to me, a challenge. Well, you’ll see,” he finished, looking at me.
I thought he was finished, but he wasn’t. He glanced at Colley sitting next to him and smiled before continuing. “Colley told me about talking to you, David. He said you used the phrase ‘catching lightning in a jar’, and asked me what it meant. I’ve thought about it. That’s what I do: spend a lot of time thinking about things.”
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, I guessed. “That was interesting, that phrase. Because I don’t think it means simply enjoying something unexpected or unlikely or even impossible. It means more. It’s a metaphor. People who write love metaphors. This has to be one, and I think it refers to what we’re all feeling, the first moments of our first loves, how they might not last, how much it’ll hurt if they don’t, but more, how unlikely it seems that we’d find someone here that liked us as much as we like them, and what that feels like. But it also is about finding that love in a place where we didn’t want to be, with people we didn’t want to be with. The summer we all thought we’d be having, that terrible summer in our imaginations, turned out to be the best summer of our lives. That’s what happened here. I think that’s what catching lightning in a jar means.”
I nodded. These kids all had the power to amaze me. The mood was getting very somber, so I smiled and looked to Rad, hoping he’d lighten the mood. Rad had been happy ever since he’d hooked up with Zach.
He squeezed Zach’s hand before speaking. “I was really upset when I came here, David. I’d thought about playing Billy Elliott, dreamed about it, and then I couldn’t, and I . . . it was really hard. But then I met Zach, and I realized a bad thing can turn into a good thing. He told me how he’d missed out on a lot of parts he’d wanted and had learned how to keep a positive outlook. He also had gotten other parts, good ones. He says life moves on, and you have to do that, too, and not get too upset with the things that don’t work out.
“Okay, so I missed playing Billy, but I’m still young, I might still have a chance to play that part, and if I do, what I’ve learned here from Zach—and all of you guys, really—will just make it all better. I guess I’ve learned not to feel sorry for myself but to use that energy to prepare for tomorrow. And doing that has made this summer a happy one instead of one spent moping around all the time. Which is what I’d have done, probably, anywhere else.”
Zach put his arm around him, and they kissed, right there, right in front of all of us. Then Zach spoke, not taking his eyes off Rad when he did. “I learned to dance. And I learned how to love someone. I was a little stuck on myself when I came here. Now I know how to care about someone else more than myself, and that makes me feel things more than I did before. It’ll make me a better actor, too, because I’ll be more in tune with the other actors and audience. I’ve learned a lot and felt a lot here. This was a terrific summer for me. The best.”
Learning. It seemed these kids were all focusing on that. Maybe that’s what kids that age do. Learn. So many things are new to them, and all of them are learning experiences. These guys knew that, and they were making me remember it.
Dillon jumped in while I was pondering this, beating Nick to the punch. That made sense. In any social situation, Nick would bring up the rear, even with the progress he’d made this summer. Self-confidence is a tricky bugger.
“I’ve never felt so relaxed as I have here these past few weeks. I think I’ve always felt I needed to prove myself. Everything’s always seemed a challenge for me, a challenge I met head on with aggression. Now, I’ve suddenly found that people can like me even when I’m being a brat. Which means I don’t have to be a brat, even if that doesn’t make sense.”
“But Dillon,” Evan kicked in, “we love you being a brat!”
Everyone laughed, and Nick—Nick, of all people!—reached out and popped him on the shoulder. Anyone else, it would have been a right good sock, punctuating the remark; with Nick, it was a tap but meant as much or more than a sock since it came from him. You have to have confidence to hit someone, even if you do it softly.
It was Nick’s turn. He knew it. None of us were sure he’d speak. But he did. “I . . . I love all you guys.” I could see him misting up, but knew I didn’t need to step in, not any more. “I’ve never been so accepted. Never. You guys accept me like I am, and that means I can do anything without worrying about being embarrassed. Right now, I feel I can soar. I’d never have come out of my shell enough to give Dillon a chance without you guys preparing me to do so. I’ve learned what it’s like to be a part of a group. I . . . I don’t think I’ll ever be really loose like you guys are. But I don’t have to be scared any more. You guys . . .” and then the misting up became more than misting, and Dillon reached for him and held him, and everyone, every single one, applauded and whistled and cheered, and Nick, through his tears, smiled.
The embers finally stopped coloring the night with their intense red, and we all made our way to our tents. I really wished I could tell what was happening in the other tent. No, not the sexy things. Well, yeah, them too, but not as a voyeur. I didn’t know that anything involving sex would happen, though I guessed it would. I just would have liked to have seen the dynamics in there, how they’d get over any embarrassment, or whether they wouldn’t get over it and nothing would happen. That tent and the machinations there would make a great lab for some grad student to study, to see adolescent psychology at its rawest.
But I was too involved with Evan to give it much more than a quick thought. He wasn’t taking it slow and gradual. He was like a tiger pouncing on a weakened gazelle. Yeah, like that.
Later, I was able to hear giggling coming from the other tent. I heard voices getting louder and then being shushed. I heard a moan, too, then more giggling. Then Evan’s tongue in my ear washed out all other sounds and I was busy again, and when I wasn’t, there were no noises at all coming from the other tent.
§ § § §
They were all famished in the morning, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything for breakfast. Sam suggested we try to catch some fish and was cried down by everyone else. They wanted to hightail it back to camp for breakfast there. That’s what we did, leaving the tents to be picked up later. I guessed I was destined to never know what happened in their tent. But I did get a smattering of knowledge, some of it from looking at them.
And I did pull Nick aside and ask what the giggling had been about. He blushed, but answered. “Sam had a flashlight. Dillon has the cutest little heart-shaped birthmark on his hip. Way up high. Everyone insisted on seeing it, and Dillon was naked and, you know, and he got embarrassed when it happened, and Dillon never gets embarrassed, and it was funny, watching him sort of bounce around trying to hide himself, and the ‘you know’ part was bouncing, too, and everyone started giggling. It was funny.”
“And then the giggling stopped,” I said, not really pushing for more. Well, maybe pushing just a little.
“Yeah,” Nick said, his voice suddenly dreamy, and his face started getting red. I left him and went to find Evan.
All the boys seemed a little quieter than they’d been. But happy, too.
Dillon was looking, well, not nearly as cocky and assertive as he had in the past. Instead, he was looking proud. Nick? He’d gone back to find Dillon after talking to me. They walked back to camp hand in hand, and there was no embarrassment about that now. No mistaking the bounce in either of their steps, either.
Zach and Rad were like they always were: together. But they’d been like that most of the summer. I realized if there was still a lot of learning going on for this group, what happened in that tent was more of it. They were all 12, all but one. Zach and Rad were quite probably the only ones with much experience with sex at all, and that probably had all come this summer. They were also actors, used to being up front, at center stage, and the least awkward of the participants. If there was any teaching going on to support the learning last night, I had no doubt who the teachers had been.
Sam and Colley. They were just holding hands and smiling at each other. All the way back.
But there was a bit more I learned about that night other than from just looking at the boys. I was out in front with Evan, setting the pace, and I heard the beginnings of a discussion from behind me.
“Man it was hot in there, two to a sleeping bag.”
“Yeah. Really hot and sweaty.”
Another voice chimed in, Colley’s voice, and I learned something I didn’t need to know. “Wasn’t all sweat, either!”
I started walking faster. I didn’t feel any need to be privy to what might come next. Evan stayed with me, trying to keep his laughing stifled till we were out of earshot.
§ § § §
We stopped at the mess hall. Breakfast, as usual, was an all-you-could-eat, choose-it-yourself meal. I must say, the food at camp was much better than I’d ever heard of camp food being. I’d asked Reggie about it, and he’d said he liked to eat, he liked good food, and there was no way he’d go all summer without it, and he wasn’t going to eat food not available to the campers. That wouldn’t have been right. He said his brothers were outraged when they saw the books and the food cost at his camp. He said he stayed out of the office on the day they’d be looking at those numbers.
But the Foxes had their choice in a buffet line that day. They were last there and didn’t have to wait. They filled their plates with eggs, bacon, sausages, home fries, toast and jelly and a pastry or two, and accompanied the weight on their trays with cups of hot cocoa.
I have to admit, I ate more than usual, too. Can’t say why.
The boys were almost too full to move from the tables, but I told them we needed to get back to Fox, drop off our backpacks, then hit the showers before going back to the campsite. They groaned, but when I rose, they did, too. We bade Evan and Dillon farewell and they returned to Wyandot while we made our way to Fox.
Sam was the first through the door. Well, the first to open the door. He’d only stepped partway in when he stopped.
“Oh my God!”