It wasn’t quite beautiful in Camp Country, USA. This was a disappointment, a setback for the photographers behind the postcards, for the people who sold sunglasses and backpacks to the hiking groups, and for the kids who came from Connecticut and Manhattan to see the beauty of America. It wasn’t quite beautiful and it wasn’t sunny. It was always an off color, impatient sort of overcast. The sky was the shade of a sick child, the monotonous fuzzy white of used underwear on a bedroom floor. It was grating, it got under your fingernails and made it so your clothes wouldn’t dry. It was enough to make you miss the cold of Utah, Colorado, or wherever you were from, miss the dry, dependable vacuum of the wider, emptier, States of the Union.
But there was no sky in the bar called the Rolton Raucous Room, and so for a little while this didn’t matter. For a little while my coworkers and I, and the participatory segment of the local population, didn’t think too much about the weight of the sky, the terrible disfocus in the lower atmosphere. We were drinking exceptionally cheap draft of conspicuously low quality in small groups under poor lighting and convincing each other to make our travel plans together. We were feeding on the moments of our time off from babysitting the ungracious children of the gifted elite of the Northeastern United States. We were concentrating on having as much fun as possible in the time provided to us for such pursuits.
I was the only one not anchored to a conversation. I floated around the room, cup of frothy beer in my left hand, dropping in on the dialogs, taking the temperatures of my peers, assigning value and making quick decisions based on shards of topic. I stopped and stuck my head into a quartet arguing politely about domestic politics.
“Sure, but no one ever said Head Start was going to be a cure-all,” said some girl I had met the night before and immediately left forgotten. I offered the crowd an on message ‘Hey’ and walked off.
This was Friday Night in Camp Country, and we were part of that idealistic, restless mass of youth left coating the bakepan of the Anglo American Empire. We were among those who fell in on Pennsylvania, New York, and New England for eight to twelve weeks in the summer to earn small amounts of money and tread water as enthusiastically as possible. We were perfectly crafted for the task, too. Scanning the room, I saw nothing but bandannas and sunburns, a shifting sandbar of cracked, peeling skin over diced freckles, under horn rimmed glasses, with mid hip jeans and belly button rings. The lifeguards with their knock off Raybans. The art instructors with the ubiquitous stains on their wrists and calves.
I hit the bar and we were singing out of tune. We were humming mostly, the older counselors making claims to the choruses. The bar played a lot of songs that were big back when I was in kindergarten (birth date = October 16th, 1985, but don’t tell the bartenders). I knew and appreciated these songs from the snippets that were aired on the commercials for the multi disc sets that got released every few weeks celebrating whatever there was to celebrate about popular music in 1988. We all liked these songs, with the detached, ironic appreciation the young reserve for the artifacts of age. Like reading The Hardy Boys or watching M*A*S*H on Sunday mornings; a pretty good time, but make sure you keep your head up.
This particular choir consisted of my key grouping for the evening and a few older friends. With two feet to spare, I felt the cold, fat hands of Amy on my arm. Amy was an oyster, born without the pearls. Amy was my catastrophic best friend. She was an enthusiastic self hater who’s arsenal featured food, booze, pills, a constantly open mouth and (at one point) the biting end of a razor blade. She danced up my arm, jammed a spongy thumb into the back of my neck and laughed inappropriately in my face. It was not going to be a good night for this girl. She prompted me forward with her head.
“I’m fucked,” she said, eyebrows arching away.
“Indeed.” This was our game, she’d be loud, she’d be big, and I would counterpoint with a subtle, stoic reply. She was Oscar and I was Felix. She was Homer and I was Marge. It went on.
“I took a bunch of shit. I’m totally gone. I don’t want to work tomorrow.”
“You could take a sick day.”
“Maybe. Hold my drink.” Amy turned to spit a wad of waxy saliva on the dirty floor of the Triple R.
“Charming,” I cringed. Amy held herself against me for a second, fixing her sock in her tennis shoe. Her red hair lost something in the din of the bar. She was fat, but not in the rolly, curvaceous sort of way. Amy was a natural linebacker. She was born big, was destined to look obese no matter how much she worked out or what she ate, so I guess she decided to call it in early and had recently started adding twenty or so pounds a year. At this rate, she’d reach 300 by 30.
Amy realigned her white-on-black hoodie, made sure the writing was legible, and swallowed hard. She must have been vomiting earlier, there was a slight disjunction in her breath, a subtle caution to her movements. Her whole body emanated some unacknowledged fear of her digestive tract.
“Want me to punch Katie Lewis?” Katie Lewis was enjambed in the far end of the bar crowd. She never did anything to anyone that would deserve a punching, never did anything but smile and excel. This was probably a key source of Amy’s hatred.
“She spilled my drink.”
“She was doing you a favor.”
“Shut up,” and she took a swig of protest, keeping her lips agape after she was done. Amy’s mouth was open even when at rest, just a little too much to be socially acceptable. I should say she didn’t do this with the vacancy of the slow children we all saw in elementary school, the punch drunk mascots of my youth. She lacked their laissez faire attitude, the absence of interest that characterized being ignored by one’s peers and then their younger siblings as they swam on by you up the spawning stream of adolescence. Amy held her jaw up and out like she was preparing to bite you on the face, out of intensity, not ennui. Her mandible stuck out at an odd angle, her pointed chin stood dagger ready, aimed at your throat. She looked like a combative thirteen year old on her first day back to school after getting braces, wanting you to say something so she could punch you in the gut. No one ever said anything to Amy about her mouth.
I lost myself briefly to my own thoughts and when I looked up Amy was leaving. I made sure her trajectory would keep her away from poor Katie and left her to the next stop along the rails. I was so totally entranced by Amy’s bullshit, the unique rationalizations and leaps of logic that kept her head above water.
If the after-school specials were true and we all excelled at something, then I excelled at detecting and appreciating the bullshit of others. I was a collector of it, I saw it miles away and wanted to understand. Some people would call this empathy, but that’s not the word. Empathy is a tool of psychoanalysts, social workers, and doers of good deeds. Empathy is used to help people; I didn’t help them, I didn’t have the drive, energy or conscience for that. I was a collector, I binge drank in the great lies of others. It was a little lonely, a curse sometimes, to know when someone was bullshitting. It wasn’t necessarily worth it to see the connection between someone saying they’d never fly because they worried about terrorism and the tormented contortion on their face when forced to climb up a ladder. Their flying bullshit. What good did it do you to know that Howard Washington from the tennis department didn’t abstain from the bars out of virtue, but rather because he was raised under the tenure of an abusive, drunken father (or uncle, I haven’t figured it out for sure).
It passed the time and made for good thinking. What kept me interested in other people’s lies was the break in the story, the beautiful moment when, say, I realized that Amy wore full length sweaters because she had plotted out the entire Mississippi river system in scar tissue on her arm. Not, as she said, because she refused to be gawked at by horny men.
I must have been staring. When I looked up Katie Lewis was smiling back at me. The accommodating, coy smile of a girl who didn’t mind too much the gawks of horny men. I let it go for now, smiled back out of habit, but mostly I let it go.
I finished my drink and remembered that I really didn’t care for beer. It was something I had thought of before—that beer was one of those things in life that seems a lot more pleasant in yearning, in possibility, than in reality. I think I even swore off lager completely one point last summer, probably at this exact same bar, with a similar pile of sea foamy beer in the bottom of a similarly disposable cup. This decision was different, I knew; this one meant something. I threw my cup down. It bounced once, twice and leaked its foam out on the table. It teetered for a moment and fell over. Gravity. Conclusive. Pat. Like the unavoidable result of a hundred ball bearings pushing down their weight. I sneezed and wiped my hand under the bar. I put two dollars on the counter and ordered another draft. Not every little moment was an epiphany, even the quietest ones were mostly not important.
It was two o’clock and I was locked in now. The opportunity for a swift, responsible evening had passed. Nonetheless, the bar should be closing soon, because this part of the world was founded by fanatics and run by their disciples. Because all the employees have children under ten who will want to go to school tomorrow, because our bosses think that while we should be allowed to take care of children while hungover, we should probably not be still drunk. I spun my stool around, looking for a driver to take me home. No luck. There were five people left in the bar, and I didn’t recognize any of them. Then Katie Lewis called out from the ladies room for someone to wait up for her. I decided I would do.
Fast forward fifty minutes and Katie Lewis and I are running. We’re running, disjointed and clumsy down some random back road that only gets a number, no name except for whatever the half-dozen residents have thought up over the years. Bog Road maybe, or Bendy Street. We are running and scared shitless, but we’re laughing. Forty yards behind us a large man who wants to join the army and goes by the name ‘Mex’ is picking himself up, peeling away a layer of dew dampened road dust and swearing me away. Then he is running too, but his running is fueled by embarrassment while ours is by fear (and in my case, lust, though the two are easily confused). So we keep adding to the distance, fifty, sixty yards and he falls out of sight with every new hinge in the road, every lump of Pocono between us. Seventy, a hundred yards, a football field and we’re safe. We strain into the nothingness and he’s not running anymore. He’s gone. Mex has left us alone.
“Are we okay now?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you want to head back to camp and maybe eat some ice cream?” I loved these questions, the ones that could only make sense in the hooligan hours, and in this case only when said with the pure simplicity of a beautiful woman who’s been shooting Tequila all night.
“Sure. Ice cream sounds good.” We had made a wrong turn when Mex started chasing, so we had a bit of a walk. This afforded us time to sober up, to laugh about the night, to retell in anecdote what had just taken place.
“He had it coming,” she went on. “That asshole had no right being out here like that. People live on this street.”
“They sure do.”
“Remember what he said to me?”
“He called you juicy.”
“Yeah”, and she paused for effect, “I am pretty juicy.” This set her off laughing and I laughed at her laughing. Roughly speaking, this was comedy.
The night suffered along behind us. It was weird, the way light hides at nighttime, these weird pockets of brighter space, open spots where the moon comes in uninhibited and it could easily be dusk. This is what I loved about the early morning, nothing was final, no matter what songwriter sang otherwise. There was no rock bottom to the light, it lived on, breathing shallow under the weight of darkness. I didn’t know if Katie Lewis thought this, I guessed that she didn’t.
“What do you lie about?” I had said this, I guess. Sometimes we talk without prepping the sentiment beforehand.
“Do you ever lie?”
“I try not to. Do you?”
“About what?” I took this very seriously, let the pace of our feet keep time, let it count out ten beats before I started talking.
“I hate beer.”
“No you don’t.”
“I do. It’s fucking gross.” This wasn’t a lie to everyone, I had told Amy once. But Amy and I were better, longer term friends and with all the entertainment I derived from her secrets I felt I owed her at least one in return. Now I had come clean to two people. I felt my secret was still safe, as domestic and unimportant as it was. I didn’t have many lies, much bullshit, if you will, and it didn’t trouble me to reveal some of it to a drunken blond in sandals and hoop earrings and the terribly inadequate Pennsylvanian sky.
We walked, and the light and the darkness walked with us, the trees must have kept pace too, because we never saw them changing. The camp came to us in increments, a gradual increase in the size of the signs advertising its approach. Eventually there was color to the signs, then one more big, rainbow banner and we were there. We high stepped it through the tall grass in the back way and found ourselves at the main office. No lights were on. No one was up.
“I’m gonna take a piss,” she said and turned around the back of the building. I pulled out a bill and scored a soda; it felt like it might rain. I was in that post drunk malaise now. The time when drunk drivers are so dangerous. You have the intoxication plus the fatigue plus the lack of concern brought on by acclimatizing oneself to both. I wasn’t driving anywhere. Katie came out like she had been crying.
“I threw up.” She had. Her eyes were all bloodshot, she was teetering a bit. She wanted a hug and I was certainly willing.
“Don’t worry about it.” I held her to my face for a second, hoping to inspire some sudden romantic whim, like how on TV all the big flings start with an awkward silence, or a stare held two seconds too long. I could tell from her breath she had eaten onions. She could tell from my hands I was lying when I said I wasn’t cold. If this was romance, I didn’t want any. We are all just excuses for sex.
“Why were you staring at me in the bar?”
“You were staring at me.”
We kissed. Not as much as you’d think, but we kissed. Her lips were gross, just disgusting, the soft pink underbelly of a virginal drama queen. I loved them both equally, my first born son and daughter. Around us, the night huddled in to share the secret, birds stopped flying. Somewhere in rural Virginia her seventeen year old boyfriend was wondering why his nose itched so much.
“What do you lie about?” I pulled back as I said this. I pulled back because I am stubborn and afraid of love.
“Why does it matter?”
“What do you lie about?”
“Not everyone lies.”
We never got more than a half a foot apart the whole time. I could see every detail of her eyes; the sharp, piercing facade of questions that don’t need answers and after that, quieter, the answers waiting for the perfect question to come find them. I went fishing.
“Do you love your boyfriend?” This caught her a bit. Something happened.
“I don’t know, why?”
“Have you slept with him?” and she shook her head and backed away, disgusted, like a dog who just had smoked blown into its face. Like a girl who I did not just kiss in a dark forest, who did not just throw up behind her boss’s office at 3:15 in the morning.
“Do you think that’s any of your business?”
“I don’t know. Leave me alone”. She was free to walk away.
“You’ve been together for six months.”
“I’m saving myself.”
“No you’re not. Why no sex?” She softened a bit in my assertiveness, and the conversation forked up the highroad, or at least, the less dirty, less abrasive one.
“He doesn’t want to.”
“He says it’ll ruin me. And we wouldn’t be together any more after.”
Somewhere in rural Virginia a chicken shit seventeen year old who knows nothing about anything is fucking up a beautiful young girl for his own vanity. His-and-hers sex bullshit.
I let it drop, and the evening resumed its course towards parting. I don’t know how to describe my crush on Katie Lewis. I liked her, but that was almost a given around a girl of her quality. She was impossible not to like and every heterosexual male in Camp Country would admit some degree of admiration, or at some initial sense of (anonymous) lust. It was just that the Katie Lewis’s of the world, their purity, the uniformity of their beauty, they were off the radar screen of your average short, non-athletic young man like myself. When she drops from the sky, she’s like an August snowstorm, like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, it’s all we can manage just to worship and stay sane.
I wanted to express this, helped by drink, camouflaged by the blanket of the night (she might think it’s someone else. I wanted to tell Katie Lewis that I loved her. We were three quarters up the path to the girls’ bunks when I grabbed her arm.
“Thanks for telling me your lies.”
“Why are you so into other people’s lies.”
“I don’t know. I’m into yours.” And she got quiet with this first admission, she knew what was coming. Like the perfect playing partner, she set me up a beauty, and I killed it.
“What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know. Everything. I want five kids, a house with a two-car garage. I want your mom to like me. I want your dad to hate me at first but then to like me later. I want to rush around our kitchen making coffee and the kids’ lunches with you. I want us to stay up all night arguing about politics and movies, then drive each other to work. I want to get at least one black eye defending you from someone else.”
And there we were. Just us, the low pressure system, a string of worker ants walking single file between our legs, and the mountains, shoulder-to-shoulder, boxing out America. I couldn’t make out Katie Lewis’s face in the darkness, so I had to rely on the bigger body parts. Her legs were twisting back and forth so her ankle rolled around in the mud. She had a hand on her hip and a hand on her thigh. She was cold, I could see it in her shoulders.
She walked away, slowly, then faster and I ran after. I called her name, yelled for her to come back and she did. She shuffled back and jumped in my arms, tried to kiss me and missed. She hit her top teeth on my chin. She was crying. I could feel it on my cheeks, they were my tears now, I owned them. She said something I couldn’t hear and then she let go. She turned and walked away, not too fast, but she had somewhere she wanted to be. I didn’t follow this time.
For one hour and eighteen minutes I sat on a fallen tree three-quarters of the way up that path. I thought about detecting bullshit and whether a new hobby might be in order. I counted all the people I loved on one hand. I thought about Amy and jabbed a sharp twig into my forearm to no effect. I thought about Mex who would never tell his army buddies the story about how he got a face full of mud while talking up some out of town girl on a drizzly night in the Poconos. He would forever leave out the part of the story where some little shit in glasses snuck up behind him, kicked out his legs, threw a half a cup of wet Pennsylvania in his face, and ran away. The night crept on behind me and the day was unavoidable now, it was coming. The bastard sun would rise again. The leaves on the trees lightened from black to dark green. It was 4:45 and I wanted to be an Eskimo. I wanted to live for months on end in darkness. I couldn’t bear to see the color of my hands.
At this lowest valley I was sucked from my daze by two older campers, a boy and a girl. They were dressed to get wet and probably had. This I loved. I loved the institutionalism of summer camp design. The sexlessness of the whole thing, the segregated boys and girls sides, and behind that, the rustle in the bushes, the glacial force of adolescence that no walls or curfew could hold down. If you closed your eyes tight, you could hear the sound of cherries being broken. They haunted the mountains like morning peepers, like crickets rubbing legs. The couple pretended to not notice me and I let it pass.
With the first hint of sun came Amy, and I had underestimated how bad she’d be. Amy was a complete disaster, no part of her was as I left it. I apologized under my breath for not following her into the Rolton crowd several hours earlier. She was carrying a bookbag, wet and the color of (I’m sorry I had to say it) shit. Her mouth was opened more now, like the weight of her jawbone was dragging it down, eating her lower face away. She stopped short, five paces in front of me and started crying. I had enough of the tears of young women tonight. I was filled to capacity, brimming with the salty brine.
“Shut up.” She kept walking.
“This is the way to my bunk.” True.
Amy kept walking, and I didn’t talk her out of it. She sat down beside me.
“I thought you were going to your bunk?” But she was already lost, crying and caving in. I deduced that the bunk was just an excuse. She tucked her head into her hoodie and shrunk away. I sat with Amy. The day stopped creeping, ceased fire out of respect.
“I don’t know what’s wrong.” Amy’s eyes were glowing in the darkness, catching every single splash of the little light there was. “No one likes me.”
“I like you.” From somewhere far away, I was laughing at myself.
“You make fun of me.” She had been talking to the right crowd. “You told people I used to hurt myself.” Had I? I had no specific memory of it, but I had been drinking heavily since five o’clock the day before and had specific memories of very little.
“I didn’t make fun of you.” It should be said that this never resembled an argument, more a pouting game of charades. We took turns squeaking out these half sentences in the only cloudy cadence we could find.
“Katie Lewis said you did.”
“When did you see Katie?”
“Few minutes ago. She was with Ted.” I might have flinched, but Ted was no problem. He was a friend to everyone and a drunken drag off to none. She would sleep on his couch and he would make her soup. “Why don’t I get anybody?”
“Not everyone gets somebody.”
“Do you think I deserve somebody?” and she shifted her weight towards me. She was a beautiful mess, just a sloppy deconstruction of a girl. Things were out of place; eyes, ears, and cheeks looked like they had been removed and reassembled from memory by a five-year-old. What could I say?
“Yes. Everyone gets somebody.” I was unnecessary, now, to the conversation, I was Amy’s sounding board, her mirror, mirror on the wall.
“I just want to be close to someone. I just want to know people.” And she burrowed her head in my lap. I tried my best not to think about sex. She was sobbing, yes, but the random intonations it caused in her hot breath made me think of orgasms. I lifted her up and held her melting face in my hands. Her eyes sat half open on her cheekbones, looking past me over either shoulder, everything about her screamed “disease” at different volumes.
“I love you, Amy.” What else could I have said? The morning slid in between us, but I refused it. I have said ‘I love you’ to too few people to notice things like the sunrise. I looked at Amy’s failing face but thought about Katie Lewis, yet another virgin princess sleeping it off on the futons or dorm beds of America. I thought about all the girls I did not say I loved when I could have. All the junior and senior high crushes, the random chance meetings in the bars and grocery stores of my world. I thought about the stupidity of observation for its own sake, the hallucinating fear of a life you’re meant to spend in reality. I thought about what to say to Amy to get her to sleep with me tonight. I didn’t know anything else but sex. Love was for nights when you haven’t been self-poisoning. Love was a long-term project and I could get started in the morning. Amy was speaking for the both of us when she wondered why she always ended up alone.
“Do you?” The question came like a mouse running across my foot. Do I what? She shook her head a little, then she served up me up the question of the night, “Jesus. What do you want from me?”
I only had one good answer to this, and I already used it. But it was quarter to six in the morning and I was too cold to sleep alone. I used the one I had.
“I don’t know. Everything. I want five kids and a house with a two-car garage. I want your mom to like me. I want your dad to hate me first but then to like me later. I want to rush around our kitchen making coffee and the kids’ lunches with you. I want us to stay up all night arguing about politics and movies, then drive each other to work. I want to get at least one black eye defending you from someone else.” This is how I remember it. I probably left out some parts and maybe stopped the whole thing short, but Amy was drunker, uglier, and had lower expectations than Katie Lewis. It worked fine.
I stood up and was shocked again by the velocity of morning. I thought about my campers, who would be up for breakfast in two and a half hours. I thought about their mothers, who paid good money for them to be looked after by honest professionals who didn’t take advantage of drunk girls with low self esteem to fulfill their own desperate self interests.
I thought about Katie Lewis the entire time we made love, if that’s what you’d call it. I realized I could never love Amy, as I thrusted away on the dirty wet floor of the abandoned boathouse. I couldn’t even look her in the eyes so I’m not sure if she ever stopped crying. When we finished I stayed inside her, and she clung like a kitten to my back. There was no bullshit now. I dragged my lips up her Mississippi river to Chicago, strumming her blue forearm with my tongue. I asked if her scars hurt and she said yes. We fell asleep naked. There could be no more bullshit when you’ve fallen asleep inside someone, naked and sweaty and all the lights still on.
I’m lucky I woke up, by myself and without anyone in power noticing. The couple of hours I had slept bought me enough sobriety to know I was being an idiot and it’s just dumb luck I hadn’t been caught. I shook Amy and she didn’t wake up. Figuring she’d end up getting fired if forced to work with children today, I checked her breathing, threw a blanket over her, turned the lights off, and left.
There’s a certain perversion to great activity when you’re hungover. Alcohol gives you this weird sense of unity, probably because it’s usually consumed in large social groups. Then when you see people going through their mornings; upbeat, energetic and generally oblivious to the tone of your day, it catches you off guard. I snuck by the pile of chattering kids and into the cafeteria, where a handful of kitchen staff hurried around getting ready. The coffee machine was high up on a shelf and in the corner of the building, this to keep the young ones away.
I was glad there was no sky in the cafeteria, glad this story ended where it started; indoors. I worried that I was thinking too much about the weather, that this was a sign of coming age, brought on by exposure to an environment dominated by the young. The truth is that there are only four characters in this story. In descending order of importance to the plot, they are Katie Lewis, Me, Mex the Local, and Amy. The sky said nothing, means nothing. I deny the whole damn thing.
Photo of owl by Sponchia, courtesy Pixabay.