by Jen Knox
I had two bottles of NyQuil and a plan to get Devon alone. I was assigned to Cabin Zeus, the first A-frame by Buckeye Lake, nearest the meeting hall. There were to be twelve of us in six cabins, and I was nervous about my roommate assignment. Of the five other girls who were supposed to come only two had arrived, Jessie and Amber, and I was hoping for one of them because they were easily intimidated (9th graders). Mrs. Shellie handed me a small plastic bag with two keys inside, each of which had a black Z on the key tag.
“Who am I with?”
She consulted her list and read the name slowly, sounding it out: “Courtney Marshall, 10th grade.” My stomach clenched.
“We don’t get along.”
“That’s why we’re here, Miss Parman, to learn to get along. I don’t know this Courtney Marshall,” she said rereading the name, “but you are free to make an appointment to discuss any issues that may arise. Until then, try your best. This camp is about community ties.”
“And if you had a special request, Miss Parman, you should know by now that you have to say so when you sign up.”
“My mother signed me up.”
Mrs. Shellie was a tall, strong woman, and I hated how small she made me feel when she crouched down to meet my eyes. Just as she was about to say something else, Jessie jumped up on a table and started screaming about how she’d seen a Black Widow. I watched as Mrs. Shellie rushed over to hang a muscular arm around Jessie’s narrow shoulders.
I got to my cabin and put down my bags. The room smelled of cedar and mildew, and I could hear laughing and yelling outside: the boys. When I opened the window above my bed and saw Devon running by the lake—his jeans were falling down, and he held on to the back belt loop with his index finger—I felt a flutter and reached for my bag. All six of the boys had already arrived. They were all play fighting and threatening to throw each other in the water. I willed Devon to look my way, but he was too busy.
I fished out the NyQuil and hid the bottles under my clothes in the top drawer of the dresser. Courtney’s loud knock arrived at the door just after I finished unpacking, and I decided right then and there to try my best to get along. We’d fought a few times, and after the last squabble, she’d been embarrassed. Skinny as I was, I was often underestimated, and I’d pounded her so good that she had to retaliate by spreading rumors. She’d told everyone in our neighborhood that I was anorexic. The sad thing was that people seemed to believe her, despite the fact that I could out-eat her, along with most of the boys we knew. It has her fault that I had a two day long stomach ache after eating an entire sausage and onion pizza at a party just to prove that I didn’t have an eating disorder. After that, she told everyone that she had been mistaken, that I was bulimic, and they believed that, too.
The knock came. I unlocked the door to find two hundred pounds of disappointment and frustration. Courtney mumbled, “Fuck this shit,” at the sight of me. I made my way back to my bed, allowing her to settle in and settle down. She dragged two duffle bags through the narrow doorway while mumbling something under her breath. Courtney was such a compact person, shaped almost like a box. Even her head was square and compact, like the imitation LEGO® people I used to play with as a little kid. I smiled, said, “Hi.”
“I tried to get it changed.” I shrugged. “Look, girl, just settle in. I’m not interested in fighting you here.”
She looked at my bed, then hers, then dropped her bags. “I want that bed,” she said.
I stood, ready to defend my space then thought about why I was here. The other bed was closer to the door anyway, conducive to a quick getaway. “Take it. Like I said, we might as well get along. It’s three days.”
She eyed me suspiciously and plopped down on the bed near the window. “This is going to be stupid,” she said matter-of-factly.
At dinner, Mrs. Shellie went over the rules: No smoking, no drinking, no girls in the boys cabins, no boys in the girls cabins, no one allowed outside after 10PM, no fighting, no food in the cabins, no wandering off during activities. These rules went on for twenty minutes. We all had to sign a contract promising that we’d adhere to them. If we were caught breaking a rule, we would be sent home early.
I signed the paper and passed it forward. Only Devon still had his; he went over the contract like a lawyer, like he actually had a choice as to whether or not sign it. He was adorable, but his behavior was a bit worrisome. I knew he didn’t like breaking rules, and this was going to make my mission to seduce him all the more difficult. Devon’s small, round glasses were falling down his nose as he read, and I smiled as he eased them back in place. He was blonde and as skinny as me. It was adorable, the way everything he wore always seemed to be falling off of him. He didn’t try hard, like the rest of the boys, to impress me or any of the girls, and I think this is what I liked best about him.
Courtney punched me in the arm, hard, and when I looked back at her she nodded toward Devon. She arched her thickly-drawn eyebrows twice. The gesture was almost friend-like, and awkwardly, we exchanged a smile.
On day two, I woke up early and left Courtney to snore. I could tell she was a heavy sleeper, and I thanked God for this. I walked slowly past the boys’ cabins, trying to figure out which was Devon’s. All the windows were covered, and I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t like I could just walk up in his cabin anyway, so I sat on a large, smooth rock and watched the stillness of the deep green water.
“Dina?” I cringed at Mrs. Shellie’s her deep, raspy voice. She was a tough counselor, known for sending people home for the littlest things. But I’d been part of this program for a long time, long before Devon and Courtney and most of the others started showing up at the teen center that sponsored it, so I think my seniority endeared me to her. I knew that the counselors thought of all of us as “needy” because our parents had to make less than shit to qualify us for the program. This is why they were nice to us in the same way you’re nice to a dog or a little kid, and it irritated the hell out of me. “What are you doing out here alone? You shouldn’t be down here by the boys’ cabins,” she said.
“I just like this spot.”
She took a seat next to me and looked out on the lake. There was a light green mist above the water; it was kind of beautiful. I began thinking about what it would be like to kiss Devon right here on this rock, overlooking the lake.
Mrs. Shellie stomped on my thought with a rush of hot breath near my ear. “Don’t come wandering around here again, hear?” I looked over at her, confused, and her stern face broke into a smile. “Sorry I couldn’t reassign you, dear. I would’ve if I could’ve. But you two girls seemed to be getting along at the meeting last night.”
“I’m trying my best,” I said.
Her eyes made a quick survey of me then she said: “Good. Girls need to stick together.”
“I guess,” I said. I could smell the mint on her breath, and I wondered why the hell she sat so close to me. “Breakfast is soon, huh?”
“Today’s pancakes and eggs. Come hungry.” Mrs. Shellie rotated her gold wedding ring.
“I’m already hungry,” I said, eyeing her ring. “Does your husband ever come to these retreats? He must miss you.”
She looked out toward the water and said, “He’s okay to be on his own sometimes.” Mrs. Shellie had dusty brown hair, and her eyes were almost the exact same color. She wore black all the time, just like my mom. She talked about her husband the same way my mom talked about my dad, like she wished she never had to talk about him at all. She told me to hurry along, get ready for breakfast.
Devon wore baggy shorts; his skinny, pasty legs were moving fast. I was a foot shorter than him, and I had to virtually run to catch up before we reached the meeting hall. He gave me a wide, thin-lipped grin when I fell in line with him.
“Hey, Dina, I saw you yesterday.”
“Yeah, I saw you, too. So, this is your first time on one of these things, right?”
“Yeah. Seems okay.”
“You, uh, you want to meet me later? On the other side of the lake? There’s this trail that goes back behind those trees over there and there’s this really cool spot.” He looked nervous, but he didn’t say no, so I continued. “I’ll be there at 11:30. That’s when the counselors go to bed. I can text you when I’m there, so you’ll know.” Devon pushed his glasses up and looked behind us. Mrs. Shellie was all the way at the back of the line. She seemed to be watching us, but there was no way she could hear from back there.
“Yeah, text me,” he said, and a tingling sensation shot down, well below my stomach.
At 10:12, we got back to the cabin after a campfire, S’mores and some of Mrs. Shellie’s cheesy ghost stories. Courtney seemed wide awake. At 11:00, she went to the bathroom, and I dug out a bottle of NyQuil. I threw out the dosing cup and slugged down a few gulps, until my throat began to tingle.
“Hell, D, you’re sick? Fuck.”
“Look, I have to run out of here. Are you going to give me a hard time about it?”
She looked at me for a long time. “You’re not sick?”
“No. This shit gets you fucked up faster than vodka,” I said. Why not tell her the truth? I wanted a little buzz, so I wouldn’t be too shy around Devon. He was shy, too, and two shy people don’t tend to get much done without a little help.
“Let me try,” she said.
“Girl, you can have the bottle if you’ll keep watch for me. I want to go run by the lake real quick.” Courtney grabbed the bottle and considered my request over a nice, long drink.
“Devon, right?” I nodded. “What the hell do you see in him, other than the fact that he’s as skinny as you?”
“I don’t know. I just like him. He’s different than the rest of those boys.”
“He’s different alright.” She nodded disapprovingly, then waved her hands. “Go.”
I ran the whole way. I felt like an undercover agent or some shit, ducking behind bushes then taking off for another sprint. At last, I made it over to the grassy spot on the other side of the lake. It was a little colder than I realized, and I had been keeping my hands inside my hoodie. They trembled a bit when I started to dial.
“I’m here,” Devon whispered. He looked so warm, well dressed for the cold.
“You didn’t come for the S’mores,” I said. “Where were you?”
“I don’t like those stupid stories.” I must’ve looked anxious because he moved quickly toward me and plopped his arm awkwardly around my waist.
“I like you, Devon. I really do. Can’t you tell?” I said, but the way I had to angle my head with him beside me was strange. None of it felt quite right.
He kissed me then. Out of nowhere, and with surprising confidence. His lips were thin but soft, and the unexpectedness of it made me forget all the work I’d done to get here. It felt like he’d been the one to go to all the trouble, and just as he pulled his head back slowly, he quickly began unbuckling his belt. Just like that, he looked like every other boy I’d ever kissed.
I was relieved when I heard her voice. “I’m assuming you two are lost,” Mrs. Shellie said sternly. Devon took off running like a punk. I just looked at my counselor and shrugged.
“I’m glad you interrupted us,” I said.
“I’ll bet you are. You know, I worry about you, Dina. You’re shaping up to be a little whore, you know that?” I thought I must’ve heard her wrong. “But, like I said, us girls should stick together, so let me give you a little advice.” She told me to sit then proceeded to tell me a long, boring story about how she’d been a fast-assed little girl and it led to early pregnancy and an unhappy marriage. I should learn from her mistakes, she said. She said a lot of things, and I wanted my NyQuil.
“I liked him because I thought he was different, but I guess he’s not.”
“He’s not,” she said; her face too close to mine again; this time her breath didn’t smell like toothpaste or gum but something acidic and sour.
“Are you going to kick me out?”
“Go on,” she said, shooing me away.
I ran back to the cabin, where I found Courtney dancing to some techno music that was blasting from her computer. Every boxy inch of her seemed fluid when she danced. I told her I had to get the fuck out of this place. She stumbled over to me. “Why you leaving, bud? We just became friends?”
“Hey, what are you saying, we’re not?”
I plopped down on the bed and opened the dresser drawer. “I think Mrs. Shellie wants to kiss me,” I said, pulling out the second bottle. Courtney held out her hand. “Hell no, you’ve had enough. Did you hear what I said?”
She shrugged. “You’re not the first girl she’s hit on. She’s a horny bitch.”
“She hit on you?”
“We made out.”
I cringed. “That’s disgusting.”
Courtney looked down. “You have a problem with gay people?”
“No. But Mrs. Shellie is an old woman with a husband. She’s, um, as creepy as any old man. And I’d be grossed out if you made out with any old person.” I thought about the day I arrived and got my roommate assignment. “You know, she acted like she didn’t know who you were when I got here.”
“Of course she’d do that.”
“So you were, like, molested by Mrs. Shellie?” The words tasted bad as they left my mouth. I waited for her to get angry, but she didn’t.
Courtney powered off her computer. She sat down and assumed the tone of a counselor herself, saying: “I’d never been with a girl, so I thought it would be like breaking the ice. When she cornered me in the bathroom I thought I was using her, you know, for experience.”
My body recoiled at the image of Mrs. Shellie’s long, strong arms blocking Courtney in the dark bathroom of our teen center. Courtney sat, her elbows on her knees, and watched me like I was supposed to say something predictable and lame. I did: “I didn’t know you were gay.” I wanted to make a joke out of it. “You think I’m hot?”
She didn’t laugh. “Hell no, you’re too scrawny. Why would I want a girl that’s built like a boy? That kind of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?”
I handed her the second bottle. “You look sick. Sorry if the thought of my boy body sickened you so much.”
She laughed loudly, and fell back on the bed. She gasped for air between grunting laughter so intense it became addictive. I started laughing too, but my laughter was thin. Catching her breath, Courtney said, “You understand me, Dina. You do. You know how it feels.”
“How it feels to, like, love something that doesn’t exist.”
“Are you talking about Devon? I don’t love him.”
“You loved the idea of him, before you got all close, right? That’s what I mean, you love the idea of something then you find out the idea never existed in the first place.”
“That’s how you felt with Mrs. Shellie?”
“That’s how I feel every day.” She took a drink. “Ugh. Why the hell do you drink this shit?”
“Takes the edge off.”
“Fuck, D, fuck!” She crawled up to all fours and crawled across the bed to look open the window. She shook the bottle of Nyquil at me and threw it outside.
“Bully,” I said.
Courtney put her hands up in the air. “Only because I love you, girl.”
As I watched her face for a break, the laughter that I knew was forthcoming, I realized how serious she was. Courtney needed to love someone, and without telling her, I decided I needed to love her, too.
She didn’t have to tell me to keep quiet about Mrs. Shellie. I knew what it meant to have to fight rumors, and how much more it hurts when they’re true. I knew how hard it would be to believe any of us needy kids’ claims against the word of someone like Mrs. Shellie. But I also knew Mrs. Shellie was paranoid, so we spent the last day getting away with murder. We didn’t attend any of the activities, and we roamed around the lake talking and laughing and ignoring the other kids. We knew, after all, that that’s all they were: kids. They were all kids who pretended to be in love with each other, who made fools of themselves because they didn’t know how to love something, not for real.