The day before I left for camp, my therapist asked me—point-blank—if, given the chance, I would have sex before marriage. Just like that. I wanted to be offended at the given the chance part, but truth was she was the only person who knew—or to whom I would ever admit—that I hadn’t even kissed a girl. And here she was asking about sex.
I slouched into the overstuffed chair, thought about it. Thought about God—what it would mean if he existed and I did it, or if he existed and I didn’t, or if he didn’t exist at all. I thought about his judgment and I thought about Erika naked. I thought about the way she bent over, not with her ass but her knees, daintily, the way she seemed to float when she went down to pick up a pencil or a rock or a soccer ball. I thought about the way she moved—with grace—and I wondered if God had any left for me.
I don’t know, I answered. Maybe.
Erika was from Santa Rosa. We went to camp together. Week five every year. Before that, it was week three. She with her church. Me with mine. It really was remarkable the way we found each other year after year, especially considering there were six weeks of camp, six opportunities to get the dates wrong and miss out. Maybe our connection had something to do with God, if you believe in that sort of thing.
You’d think someone like me who went to camp each year would be a bit more devout, but I wasn’t too sure about any of it. There was always this moment, usually the last day of camp, when everyone gathered underneath the redwood canopy or by the creek with the Coho salmon or up at the hill by the old wooden cross, this moment where I absolutely did believe in God, but then something would happen a week later to undercut all that, and I’d be left questioning all over again.
The only certainty was Erika. Over the years, she went from being that tall girl with the pink barrettes to the girl who draws with me during free time to my camp-best-friend. Then around freshman year, her body suddenly changed in a way I didn’t understand but made me uncomfortable, and we stopped talking, until, finally, last year, we were friends again. A relationship blossoming one week at a time. One year at a time.
We shared secrets. Big ones. I told her about my panic attacks and how I was wrongly placed on a 72-hour suicide watch even though I never thought of killing myself, and she said you better fucking not all angry, and I felt loved. That same summer, she told me when she was at the mall, she saw her mom kissing someone other than her dad. Then last year when we started talking again, she said her parents were separating.
She gave me her mom’s address the last day of camp, and we wrote each other a couple letters. She wrote that she dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, which I already knew, and I told her I’d like to be a vet if I could get my grades up. She said UCLA had a good science program, and we talked about going together and maybe me setting up a practice somewhere along the coast so I could care for the animals she saved. She liked that. After about a month, she started signing her letters with a little heart over the I and sealing them with a spritz of strawberry perfume. She gave me her number and told me to call, but I couldn’t get up the nerve to actually do it, though sometimes on Fridays when she wasn’t busy, we’d fire up the National Geographic section on Disney+ and get it so our videos synced—I don’t know if they were actually synced, but we were close enough in my head—and we’d text each other little observations as we watched. She used a lot of emojis in a way I never could, but it seemed to work for her. Everything worked for her.
Early in the fall, as we watched a penguin documentary, she wrote that because we didn’t go to the same school, she felt comfortable around me. Like she could be herself. A few weeks later, she texted me that she got a boyfriend, Luke-Something, then a week after that, she stopped texting me altogether. Sometimes on Fridays when I didn’t have much else going on, I wondered if Luke-Something was sitting on her couch, or even laying on it, watching our shows with his arm around her. I wondered if he used emojis. Stupid fucking things.
Camp began Sunday afternoon with all of us laying down on the Big Green Field while the staff acted out the rules. The only one they didn’t act was no purpling. See, boys were blue and girls were red and whenever they mixed…you get the idea. Inevitably some smartass would also say and no dark red or dark blue either, and everyone would laugh. No one made the joke this year. Progress. Dark red, dark blue, or purple, it was all bullshit anyway.
Everyone was doing it—everyone but me: back in middle school, when all the younger kids went off to the ropes course and we had free time, my friend Derek Ellis snuck underneath the playground with a girl, and they were both sent home for making out; during free time freshman year one of the girls from our church showed the boys’ cabin her thong—the counselor too—and the counselor was so embarrassed he didn’t even report it but instead gave us a long talk about our bodies being a temple, and that night, I’m pretty sure that kid Aron was whacking it in his sleeping bag. Marco Kratz snuck out one year and didn’t return, we thought, because he finally hooked up with Cynthia George, but Shay Carpenter said he stayed up all night with the camp director filing something called a mandated report which meant his parents were in big trouble—the next year different parents brought Marco to camp, and the year after he didn’t come at all.
I mean, I guess the younger kids weren’t purpling, but the middle school kids definitely were horned up and thinking about it, and while some of the high-school kids pretended to be above that sort of thing, they totally weren’t. Jesus is a hell of an excuse when you’ve got no game. Trust me, I’d know.
When the rules talk ended and we were leaving the Big Green Field, smoothing the grass imprints from our knees, Erika’s friend Sammie leaned over and tugged on my shirt. Whispered. Erika and her boyfriend broke up. Her idea.
I waited until Erika was far enough she couldn’t hear. What happened?
Sammie shrugged. She wanted the freedom to explore during college, and—Sammie pulled me aside and let all the other campers pass by us. She continued—and this is my speculation, and not, I repeat, not what Erika told me to tell you, I swear—she’d probably be willing to go to second or third base with you.
I didn’t even know what the bases were, but I wasn’t about to ask.
After a cafeteria dinner with chicken nuggets and leaky peas, the lead counselors broke us into small groups. These were the people we’d spend the week with outside the three big events: the Tuesday night banquet, the Thursday night dance, and Friday night’s big game, a camp tradition based on whatever random theme the counselors chose for the week. This week was Harry Potter.
So the camp stayed on-brand and drafted us into small groups through a sorting hat ceremony that let down only about half the kids—there’s no way in hell I belonged in Gryffindor, but Erika as a Hufflepuff, well, that sounded about right. There was no Slytherin. Not at church camp.
There was also no mixing of houses until Tuesday at the earliest except during free time—two hours each afternoon to shower, shit, and fall in love. Erika and I started out Monday by the craft shack making lanyards from plastic strings. She sat at the same picnic table as last year, waiting as if she’d been there all this time, as if she hadn’t changed her hair color and relationship status and as if she hadn’t swapped out last year’s makeup for something dark and smoky around the eyes.
Nice hair, I said.
Thanks. She looked away, flipped open the shoebox with all the different samples for the lanyards. I like your shoes.
Erika pulled out all sorts of different color samples and overlaid them on top of the redwood table in various combinations. I thought of reaching into the box, accidentally grazing her hand to see if she’d pull away.
Where are you going next year? I asked. You ever apply to UCLA?
She shook her head. City’s fine. I can save money that way and transfer when I’m ready. What about you?
UCLA, I said, trying to play it off like no big deal. How’s the boyfriend?
Erika slipped a half-amused smile, the same look as back in eighth grade when Elliot Bennet fell into the creek and tore the back of his jeans. Didn’t Sammie tell you?
She slid the sample box my way, flagged down the counselor, and had him cut all the different colors for her lanyard. She could do the fancy lanyards with like six or eight different strands, but I could only do the basic two. I made the same patterns each year—blue and yellow like the Warriors and red and green for Christmas. I looked through the box, not caring what my lanyard looked like; I just wanted us together.
Want to pick my colors? I asked. I’m making it for you.
She liked that. I could tell. I asked who her lanyard was for, but she ignored me and thumbed through the box of samples. For my lanyard, she chose a fire-engine red and a color I said was blue but she insisted was purple. Purple.
Why those, I asked.
She shrugged, said I like the way they feel.
The rest of the day, through dinner and bible study and even the night swim, as I weaved together the red and purple, slipping one string through the hole created by the other, I wondered what she meant by that, and I wondered if she was working on her lanyard, layer upon layer, thinking of me.
The next night was the first of three big events: the banquet. I didn’t hang out with Erika during free time because she and Sammie had to help each other with their hair and makeup and whatever else girls do to get ready. My mom packed a blue button-up shirt, the gameday slacks I wore to school before basketball, and one of dad’s belts. Dad told me to wear my running shoes in case I needed a quick escape.
They split the guys and girls up for etiquette lessons, except for Charlize and Audrey who both insisted they were guys. Now, if you take this to mean church camp was somehow progressive, you’ve got the wrong idea. The staff only allowed Charlize and Audrey to cosplay as guys because the girls at church camp outnumbered the guys two-to-one, and it looked bad enough with teenage boys rolling into the banquet hall with a girl on each arm and sometimes a third out front, so some of the counselors figured this would mitigate that. Let a few girls come in together. As friends.
Etiquette was the same every year. For the girls, lessons consisted of proper napkin folding, leg-crossing and uncrossing, silverware placement, pinky placement, elbow placement—how to take up just enough space to be seen without necessarily being heard or felt. Us guys? The counselors taught us biblical pick-up lines from Song of Songs and said to use them on our dates:
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing…
Your belly is a heap of wheat,
encircled with lilies…
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
When etiquette lessons finished, we descended the hill and paraded toward the dining hall for the grand banquet. The girls presented themselves in a single-file line like kindergarteners or dolls. The lead counselor numbered off us guys and had the girls transition into arrangements of two, then he made some joke about how we aren’t Mormons, and he gave us each two girls. Each line whittled down, and Erika and I grew closer to being paired together.
I pretended to tie my shoe and let my friends Rudy and Demetrius in front of me, trying to time it so Erika and I matched, and I slipped back in line just in time to see Ben Chung take Erika by the hand and lead her away. I was matched with two freshmen who still had their braces from middle school. One of the girls’ brackets were the same colors as my Erika-lanyard.
Let me tell you about Ben Chung. Our first year of camp, we each had to give ourselves new names for the week—some sort of a pun or play on words. Some of my friends were Shake Your Rudy, Evan Can Wait, The Grinch Stole Mitchmas, God Bless AmErika… that sorta thing. I tried to be Jesus Chris, but the staff shot that down real quick, so instead I went with Fast and FuriChris. Ben Chung? He was Bench. That’s it. Bench. All this is to say when it came to Ben Chung and Erika, I wasn’t worried one bit.
So why the hell was she so damn flirty with him? Is this what they taught in etiquette class? I gave my dates a few compliments—the ones about the wheat-belly and the crooked nose—and I tried not to look at Erika and Ben.
The next day, I waited for Erika outside the craft shack, working on my lanyard with tired, anxious hands. She never came. I finished the lanyard alone and had a counselor knot the end. The plan was, if I could work up the courage, to give it to Erika at the big dance tomorrow.
The dance wasn’t your traditional school dance. No twerking, no boners to hide, no nuns walking around with a ruler measuring for the Holy Spirit (why is the Holy Spirit always twelve inches, anyway?), nothing like that. This was an old-fashioned country-western square-dance complete with an emcee in overalls calling out different steps and telling us when to dosey doe. I packed a red bandana and a straw hat for the event, and I tucked my finished lanyard into my old washed-out Levi’s. Erika wore jean shorts that barely made it past her fingertips (the counselors checked) and a checkered shirt that matched her blue eyes.
Square dancing is like a swinger’s club in that it goes in rounds, so everyone gets a turn with each partner, which was great for me and Erika so long as we were in the same group. We weren’t. I caught Ben Chung using my shoe technique to get into her group. It threw off the numbers and left me out. Well-played, Bench.
Around the time the sky went dark, the emcee called for a five-minute break before one last number for the whole camp. The girls made a circle on the inside facing out and the guys were on the outside facing in, and naturally some of the girls had to pretend to be guys to make the numbers work (both my banquet-dates fell into this category), and the guys took turns rotating around the girls because it wasn’t fitting of a lady to move all that much, and when the emcee told us to clap, we would, then we’d rotate again. Clap rotate. Clap rotate. Clap, clap, clap.
I matched myself up with Erika’s friend Sammie, that way if I got the rotation right, Erika and I would end the night holding hands, and I’d be able to slip her my lanyard all romantic in the dark.
It worked perfectly. Sammie smiled at me like she could read my mind, and when it was time to clap, she whispered in my ear good luck. I danced around the circle for what felt like forever, then when I was finally matched up with Erika, we were both sweaty and out of breath. I held her hand and she held mine. She smelled of strawberries. She looked at me in a way that invited me to look back. I did. Her blue shirt pressed against my chest where my red bandana hung loose.
When the song ended, I held her hand just a beat longer, then dug the lanyard out of my pocket. It was sweaty. I wiped it on the leg of my jeans and presented it. She tucked it snug into her tight denim shorts and blushed. Then I asked how her lanyard was coming along, and she shrugged it off like an afterthought. I kind of gave up working on it, she said. There’s been a lot going on.
I wonder if she knew I’d analyze those words into the next morning. What exactly was going on? God stuff? Ben stuff? Something else? I snuck a glimpse at her singing during campfire and a couple times I caught her and Sammie watching me too, whispering. The pastor gave a campfire sermon about how we all had it backwards—that this was the real world and the rest of our lives were a poor imitation of camp. But what did that mean for people like me who after tomorrow would never come back? Would the rest of my life be a dusty version of camp? Would I ever get a girlfriend or even a kiss? Tomorrow, we’d play the big game, then when it was over, we’d gather around the creek and everyone would cry, then we’d go home, and that would be it. No more real world. No more Erika. I decided during the big game I’d tell Erika exactly how I felt. Worst case scenario, I’d have something else to cry about around the creek, and the rest of the camp would probably be impressed with my devotion to Jesus. I could live with that.
As usual, the camp went all out for the big game. There was a Harry Potter themed video introduction and a skit from the counselors, and a series of dementors were hiding in the trees and if they tagged you, you’d have to perform a task or else go to Azkaban until another camper broke you out, and the Elder Wand and the Invisibility Cloak and the Resurrection Stone were said to be hidden somewhere within the clearly defined geographical boundaries of the main camp, and it was up to us students to collect clues and find the items.
My friends hunted for the Elder Wand while I searched for Erika. We’d heard there was a clue up by the boxcar, so we went that way together, running past the Big Green Field and the dining hall. Just before reaching our destination, I spotted Erika walking all alone by the far side of the creek. I pointed her out to Rudy and told him not to wait up, and as I ran her way a fucking dementor tagged me. He told me the armor of God could break his spell, and if I could name two pieces, I wouldn’t have to go to Azkaban. But I didn’t know that shit. So he sent me to fake jail at the playground halfway between me and Erika.
The sky turned black and the night wasted away. The counselor at Azkaban took his job way too seriously, and he made it damn near impossible for me and the other campers to leave. Some kids came to free us, but nobody could crack his bible-trivia, not even Eliza Fisk, and her dad was a pastor. How the hell are we supposed to know who died carrying the Ark of the Covenant? If only he’d asked for something simple like a biblical compliment, we’d be fine.
A while later, Erika walked over to me, head hung low. She plopped down by my side.
In jail too? I asked.
She nodded, then she unzipped her bag and pantomimed like she was holding some sort of jacket. At least I found this, she said.
Is that what I think it is?
She nodded again. The invisibility cloak.
We laughed then stopped at the same time. She looked at me again, similar to last night but different, her dangerous eyes probing, assessing me.
Yeah, fuck this, she said. She put on her backpack then pretended to slip the invisibility cloak over her body. When I say run, we run. If we can get to the far side of the creek, we’ll be golden.
But that’s past the boundaries.
It went just as she said. The counselor went to fend off some student, then we made a break for it, ran straight for the trees then disappeared along the creek bank, moving upstream like the Coho salmon that went into the woods to lay eggs each year. We’d made it past the boundaries, past the counselors, we were alone and we were free. She pulled a square bottle out of her bag and sprayed her neck. Strawberries.
Now what, I whispered.
Erika took my hand and led me along a winding path a half-mile uphill through whispering bushes and centuries-old redwoods, and soon we came across a clearing up high where there were no trees, only brown dust and a sharp ledge overlooking the valley. A life-size wooden cross was planted to our left, and above it the night sky was decorated with brilliant stars. The air was thin up here. The wind tickled my skin, sent goosebumps along my legs, and I became acutely aware that, if Erika asked to see it, my penis would be half its normal size.
She set down her bag at the foot of the cross and pulled out the lanyard she’d been working on all week, an ambitious six strand contraption that had been jumbled up into a ball, tangled and knotted like a forgotten pair of headphones. The more I tried to fix it, the worse it got, she said. But it’s yours if you want it. Her hand trembled. She suddenly looked small and delicate and vulnerable. Like me. I took the lanyard and told her it was perfect, and she said it wasn’t, and I said I loved it anyway.
We held hands and looked out over the vast gulf before us, pure darkness dimly lit by the moon. The shadow of the cross marked the dust beneath our feet. And as we held each other, frozen in time, I looked up at the cross, and I thought of my therapist and I thought of God, and, oh yes, I thought of sex, and I knew, finally, what I would do, given the chance.
Erika leaned in and whispered into my ear, then she nibbled on it gently, tilted my head, and kissed me. She took off her shirt and helped me with mine, then we cuddled together in the dirt, her warm skin pressed against my chest, and we continued looking out over the gulf.
I brought my hand against her ribcage. I hadn’t found the courage to move up any further. Her fingers tickled the waist of my jeans, then she worked her cold hands inside them. Rested. I could feel her breath. She nestled her head against the crook of my neck and together we looked past that old wooden cross and up at the deep-dark sky speckled with white stars, and I knew, absolutely knew, for the first time in my life, God was real.
After camp, I went back to my therapist’s office playing with the lanyard. My therapist looked at it but didn’t say anything even though I wanted her to. I wanted her to ask me about it. She only wanted to talk about if I was ready for college. I told her I felt good, and I meant it.
At my dorm, the lanyard stayed in my sock drawer through two years, one hookup, and zero girlfriends. And I don’t know if the hookup even counts. I threw up my Natty Light before getting the condom on, and she said she wanted me anyway, but then I got all limp and she called me a pussy. I don’t even remember her name. It’s not important.