The only love letter I’ve ever written was to Raylene. She got it on our last day at camp at Mount Lew when I shoved her hard against the cool cinderblock wall outside of the latrine, where I had been waiting for her. Even her ponytail quivered. Even her bony knees. All summer I had writhed, thinking of one of my hands on top of one her knees. “Take it,” I said, pushing the letter I’d written in the sorrowful gloom of my tent the night before. Hearing the whistle blow in the courtyard, I let Raylene loose. She straightened to stand taller than me. Her defiant eyes met mine and she said “I don’t want your stupid letter.” I returned the sweaty letter to my pocket and watched Raylene as she quickly followed the path back to her cabin.
I’d been watching Raylene all summer. She was a year younger than us, but she could swim so well, that the Directors let her take “Free Swim” in the deep end where my bunk mate Angelo and I would tread water and watch her climb along the rungs of the diving board. Angelo had the biggest teeth I’d seen on any kid, and I could see them, outsized and stained, when his mouth widened into a smile as he watched Raylene pull the edges of her bathing suit down over her bottom.
I knew more about Raylene than Angelo thought I did. At night, Angelo fell right to sleep, but night after night I lay motionless, hearing the girls in cabin 15 speaking in melodious, low tones. It gave me the impression that girls never slept. In those first nights of the summer, I learned that her mother was dead from cancer, and she hated her father. She had two cats and wanted a parrot. She could French braid her own hair.
Some things about Raylene, I learned simply by watching. Simply by keeping my eyes stuck to her. Raylene sat at table B everyday without fail. Not only did she shave her legs, which was rare even among the girls my age, but she also wore a bra. When I think about it, maybe she didn’t need a bra. Maybe it was only a training bra. Maybe she only wore that bra for show. I could see it, white and scandalous, beneath her tee shirts.
I hadn’t ever boned a girl, but Angelo had. Patrice was his girl from back home, whose parents didn’t believe in camp. Patrice was always sending Angelo postcards of beaches with xo’s and hearts drawn all over the back. Cape Cod, Salisbury, Hampton. Wish you were here. A couple of times I saw Angelo bring the postcards to the bathroom with him and not come out for a long time. I didn’t know if he took them in there to jerk off or if he cried because those postcards made him realize how much he missed Patrice. I didn’t miss anybody from home, so I sort of started to miss Patrice, too. I watched our cabin’s mailbox for her postcards. I hadn’t ever seen a picture of Patrice, but he told me she looked a lot like Goldilocks. At the campfire each night I’d look at girls, trying to find one that I thought looked like Goldilocks so that I could figure out what Patrice looked like.
Angelo knew I’d never boned anybody because I’d had to tell him when we were playing Truth on a canoe a few weeks earlier. Me, Angelo and Ronny, who always smelled like bacon, didn’t catch any fish but we did exchange stories about girls we had known, and also about the girls we were getting to know at camp. Under pressure to reveal something, I told them about Janet from back home, who had lifted her shirt to me outside of the library after school. What I didn’t tell them was that Janet never came to any of my baseball games, even though I desperately wanted her to. And Janet never talked to me at recess. In fact, I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only guy in my class who’d seen Janet’s freckled tits. Angelo and Ronny started to make a list of girls they thought were easy.
“What about that girl Raylene?” I asked.
Ronny answered, “She’s weird. But weird girls can be,” he paused then continued with a grin, “interesting.”
Angelo laughed louder than any of us, his gigantic teeth gleaming. “That’s like Patrice! Patrice is weird!”
I hadn’t talked a lot about Raylene, especially to Ronny. I thought about her all the time. Especially during those lonely times when, in a group of loud-know-it-all guys like Ronny, I kept quiet in a corner. I didn’t know a lot just that Raylene looked like an angel in her French braid; just that Raylene looked like a forest nymph with her dandelion crown. What I wouldn’t have given for her to love me the way I thought I loved her. And what I wouldn’t have done to ease the pain of loving her.
After all, it wasn’t the kind of love that led me to sit beside her at campfire, or splash her affectionately in the lake. Instead, it was a festering love. The kind that cooks inside of you, at a higher heat each time you see her around a corner, or ahead of you in a line. It was love that felt as naughty as a four letter word. I knew Raylene would never love me. I wasn’t enough like the other guys, and I couldn’t help but feel that there was some defect in me as a person that made me too filthy to be loved by anyone.
Angelo was the only friend I had. We didn’t have to talk; it was understood between us. We were both dirty. But Angelo had something I didn’t: a girl. I’d read his postcards, and I knew Angelo had done something remarkable to convince Patrice to love him. I couldn’t help but think, with those enormous teeth, any girl would need some convincing. I’d begun to believe that Angelo knew something I didn’t know. On the first day of the last week of camp, I asked Angelo for his help trusting that he would help me show Raylene that I was good enough for her to love.
It wasn’t until we were on the path, hot on Raylene’s heels, that I started to feel sick. Angelo whispered, “Stay low! This way!” as we hurried through the brambles. It looked like Raylene was going to climb Mount Lew to the Crow’s Nest where the art shack was. When I think of Raylene now, I imagine her with jet black hair in an artist’s studio in New York City. I imagine her with cool white shoulders and tangy wine on her tongue. She is the kind of woman that would never take my arm.
Angelo motioned for me to follow him as he quickly neared her when she bent to tie the lace of her left sneaker. I remember that. It was her left white Ked sneaker that had come undone. Angelo came up from behind her and put his two hands in her arm pits and lifted her. She squealed and began to kick him in the shins. “Help me!” he called to me, as though he were rescuing a hurt animal, as if this were a matter of valiant duty.
I ran slowly towards them, but my stomach had begun to cramp. Angelo twisted Raylene around and shoved her against a tree. With his hands pretty much off of her, she had stopped squealing. “Don’t move,” he warned. He turned to me, “Quick! Before she squeals again!”
I’d pissed a million times in those woods, but that didn’t make it any easier for me to clasp the zipper of my fly and unbutton my jeans. I looked at Raylene and by the expression on her face, I could tell she didn’t know what I was about to do. I turned my head and looked instead at a very large, very old tree to the left of us. It was the sort of tree you could climb. And also the sort that a million kids would carve their names in, carve hearts in. It didn’t occur to me then, but it seems simple now, that I could just as easily have done that to prove to Raylene my worth. Instead I put my hand into my underwear and pulled my penis out. I could hear Raylene crying quietly. “Shut your mouth,” Angelo said to her between his teeth.
Contrary to how I’d felt in the moment, I now know I didn’t throw up because I was nervous about showing myself to Raylene. Instead, I later learned, I threw up because I’d eaten a bad egg at breakfast. In front of Raylene and Anthony, I fell to my knees on the dusty path. “What? What?” he called to me as he let Raylene loose. I shook my head in shame. I hated myself because I hadn’t had the courage to look her in the eyes with my dick in my hand.
Raylene must not have told her Counselor what Angelo and I did to her because I waited all afternoon on a bed in the nurse’s tent for the Directors to come for me, but they never did. When I went back to the bunk, Angelo was already in bed pretending to sleep. He held an old postcard from Patrice in his hand and his eyelids fluttered. I slid into my sleeping bag and beneath the loud flicker of the mosquito zapper outside of our tent, I began to compose the only heartfelt outpouring of hope and intention I have ever been stupid enough to put together.
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