Octopus friends and big rock

Big Rock

The last night of camp, word got around there was going to be a Tupperware Party at Big Rock. I was in the Den—a cozy, high-piled, low-ceilinged common room beneath the dining hall—when Kevin came in and told us. I was sharing a long couch cushion and watching the final turns of a quick-slapping card game.

What’d he say? a girl asked. Kevin was already out the door. He was on a mission.

Nothing! the boy next to me blurted out, waving off neighboring snickers and jabs. It’s just a joke, he said, changing his mind. Then, thinking better: It’s nothing!

With a loud slap, another boy picked up a pile of cards. And just like that, the game was alive again.

The conversation went on, but I hardly noticed. I was seated at the far end of a scratchy, pilling couch, with people I didn’t know, watching a game I wasn’t even playing. I was somewhere else. The softest, farthest ripple from where the stone fell. People used to comment on how often I ‘checked out’ of conversations, when my eyes would go empty and I’d sit there slack-jawed. I learned to lean into it, conditioned by sympathetic remarks to contort a quirky, introverted awkwardness. But, more often than not, I was busy entertaining darker, faraway thoughts—these boys who, almost innately, held tradition in one hand and word-of-mouth in the other; these boys who could make ‘nothing’ happen—in quick bursts imagining what it must be like to be one of them, to be with one of them, each fantasy quickly deflated by a sinking feeling of sickness. Being closeted felt like many things, but at sixteen years old, it mostly just felt like this. Boy-crazy and regretful. Confusing, inexplicable. Like I wanted to crawl out of my skin but had nowhere better to go.

Tonight, however, the night of the Tupperware Party, was going to be different. I could feel it. Because what Kevin told us wasn’t so much an invitation as it was a reminder to those of us assigned to Big Rock—the publicity of it all just a way of achieving a smug sense of superiority, I suppose. And I, still carrying my quarter-folded, photocopied camp map in my back pocket with my cabin assignment drawn in a single-stroked, million dollar ‘x’, for once close enough I swear I could hear the gravid thloop as Big Rock broke the water and sent rolling waves in all directions, found myself on the inside.

I didn’t call it ‘camp’ at the time, and I think that’s because I had grown up camping, and the two were such different, incomparable experiences. My parents used to take my sisters and me to Big Sur every year in our old Mazda minivan, which is now long gone but remains forever caked in dust in my memory, peppered with buggy roadkill. I remember we’d leave before sunrise, the three of us in and out of sleep and tucked like sardines in the backseats. And then, by midmorning, when the road swung about and hugged the guardrails by the cliffs, we’d stir with impatience and nausea. Not infrequently, one of us would throw up violently—as only sleep-deprived, carsick children can do—triggering a sequence of horrified screams and shoves and a sharp head-jerk from our mother in the front seat, all the while our father drove on unfazed, maneuvering the curves of the coastline perched against the mismatched blues of ocean and sky, a view the rest of us were too distracted or ill, or, rarely, too asleep, to admire.

Despite the drive, even then, so many years ago, camping earned its value in small joys. Like sitting in a saggy camp chair with nothing to do except nurse a smoky, hobbling fire. Looking up at trees that were so tall they appeared to arc like a canopy. Studying the sun, watching it fall. Starting each evening playing cards on a splintering table, losing an eight or jack through the side slats, all of us doused in DEET and turning our hands to catch the hissing glow of kerosene. I was a whiny, fragile, and by no means woodsy boy, and I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but these moments were not lost on me.

Camp—‘camp’—on the other hand, took place over a week every August once I started middle school. It was three hours inland, the opposite direction of Big Sur, and so the drive, while straight and innocuous, was mind-numbingly redundant, my view through the backseat window rotating through windfarms and apple orchards and small rural towns given away by their smell of gasoline and horse manure. I dreaded camp. Though, on paper, I had no reason to. Rather than dusty tents and Styrofoam Cup Noodles, camp had ziplining and a ropes course and a lake a few miles down the road with kayaks and canoes. Right by the entrance was a sand volleyball pit and a basketball court, and up the hill from the Den was a game room fully equipped with pool, foosball, ping pong, and an air hockey table. Their industrial-sized ovens were perpetually filled with lasagna, their refrigerator doors lined with barbeque sauce, and along the far wall of the dining hall, next to the flowing soda machines and across the untouched salad bar, was a larger-than-life tray of desserts whose supply was vigilantly replenished every time one of us walked away from it.

It wasn’t just camp, either. It was church camp. And the church part—the prayer, the worship, the clean, polite language that remained impressively intact considering we were over two hundred teenagers with just a semblance of adult supervision—baffled me in its proximity to things like the Tupperware Party, these unlisted activities that somehow found their way between the lines of our camp itineraries. I was good at the church part. Enough to feel like I fit in and belonged with everyone else. But the other part, the unspoken part of codewords and nudges, filled with moments that made my heart race and gnawed at my stomach lining like carpenter ants, felt so alien to me. It was as though camp had at its core a speck just large enough to be recognized as horrible, and I was the only one who could see it.

The summer I was assigned to Big Rock felt monumental enough, some would say heaven-sent, that I thought this might be the year things would change. Something would shift and suddenly I would get it. My vision would clear and ‘camp’, the way everyone else saw it, would come nicely into view. I was single-minded in this, my hope unerring and forgiving. As if waiting, as if time, was all I needed to see things any other way. But in the years that followed, recognizing again and again that same sinking sickness, that inky speck gaining ground with limbs and tentacles through every high school prom, through every jock with a decent jawline, through every R-rated movie and hidden browser internet search and every visit to Target’s red-light center aisle of men’s Fruit of the Loom bonus eight-packs of briefs, I never would.

The counselors gathered us together in Big Rock’s common area. Unlike the other cabins at camp—poorly ventilated, two-room shanties coated in noxious lacquer with floors of mud paste and pine needles—Big Rock was an anomaly. Big Rock was a large, beautifully modern cabin situated at the very edge of the campgrounds, across the two-lane gravel road and at the top of a flight of makeshift stairs staked into the topsoil, making it too inconvenient to enforce a curfew and too remote to justify any kind of noise restriction. Rather than a cluster of duplexes, Big Rock was a single cabin with multiple rooms surrounding a large, open common space. The main floor opened up into a wide, carpeted area with a kitchenette on one side and a fireplace on the other. There was an iron staircase along the far wall that fed into a row of backrooms arranged in a semi-circle, each one fitted with three bunkbeds. A guardrail ran in an arc along the upper-level gangway, so from outside each bedroom you could hang your feet through the bars and look up at the tall, vaulted ceiling or look down at the main floor, where there was a pool table, stacks of chairs and tables, and two private rooms—one for showers and one for bathrooms. Light from all hours came through the tall, slatted windows along the side wall, and at night, except for the county sheriff’s pick-up truck kicking up pebbles as it slowed down to catch the sharp turn of the road, you could hardly hear a sound. Just the nightly disassembly of camp, a matter too distant, too juvenile, to mind. By unspoken precedent, Big Rock was reserved exclusively for high school boys, and it was, without question, the most enviable cabin to be in. It was where the popular kids spent their free time, where gossip found its outlet and lore its birthplace. It was the kiln where couples formed and dissolved and, through an awkward trial of handholding and fraught deliberation, found themselves in that uncertain place somewhere in between.

The counselors assigned to Big Rock were all in their mid-twenties. It was obvious which ones had been campers themselves. Their experience puffed their chests out and put knowing grins on their faces. They all wore oversized t-shirts and knee-length Nike basketball shorts with the tiny swoosh logo by the hem. Two were barefoot, and one wore Rainbow flipflops. While the rest of us sat on the carpet with our backs to the wall, they formed a small huddle, speaking softly to each other, every so often shooting a look or pointing a finger at one of us. The common area was empty. The chairs were stacked, and the pool table had been pushed partially into the kitchenette.

They picked the four biggest among us, which, thankfully, did not include me. Kevin was one of them. Him and two other boys who I recognized from the camp basketball tournament were already six feet tall at least. The fourth one I knew played football for his high school team. He was big and boneless. The four of them got up and formed a close, short line in the middle of the room. Then they all leaned forward, wrapping their arms around the waist of the person in front of them, resting their heads between the others’ shoulder blades. They kept their legs wide and bent, nestling into each other like a series of Z-shaped Tetris pieces. The base was the most important part, which was why the counselors took their time, circling the huddle with an expert, curating air. Together, they adjusted the formation, ensuring each boy was wrapped tightly around the boy in front of him and that their legs were squarely stacked on top of each other. When the counselors were done, you couldn’t find a space between any of them.

Then, the counselors turned back to us. The next boy they chose was large and impressive, but slightly smaller than the initial four. He walked over to the kitchenette occupied by the pool table and knelt low, touching a hand to the carpet’s edge like a runner at the block. We all watched in silence.

Buck-buck! he yelled. He sprinted into the common room and leapt high into the air, landing tiger-like on top of the four-man base, which hardly budged. He landed by the front, his body fully on top of Kevin, who, without anyone’s waist to hold onto, was grabbing his own shoulders, forming an ‘X’ with his arms across his chest. There was a round of applause—for his impressive jump and graceful landing, for his well-executed, thoughtful self-placement. Future jumps were going to be more difficult and accumulate on the backend, so front-loading early on was critical.

Without a word, the next boy got up and readied himself in the same position behind the carpet, spending a moment to focus before yelling Buck-buck! and launching himself with a similar, high jump.

There were more whoops and applause.

A lined started to form in the kitchenette.

I had actually never seen Buck-Buck before, let alone been invited to play, but I knew what it was. I knew that girls weren’t allowed to play. Boys weren’t either—the game itself was summarily banned—but boys were the ones who got away with it. Buck-Buck reminded me of another game, Patonk (presumably related to the boules sport, pétanque, which has a similar concept, albeit tangentially so). Patonk was equally frowned upon, though definitively more permissible, sometimes taking place in broad daylight. In Patonk, two boys sat facing each other in chairs some distance apart—the general rule being the farther apart the chairs, the harder and more painful the game. Each boy sat with his arms hanging to his side and legs slightly spread. Then, they took turns tossing an object, usually a half-empty water bottle, into the lap of the other boy. A boy won when the other boy flinched. Though, more often than not, a boy won when the other boy crumpled to the floor, hands over his crotch, everyone surrounding him shouting with a mixture of crude entertainment and empathetic agony.

I remember, one summer, a counselor walked in on two boys playing Patonk in the Den, and when he saw what they were doing, he took the Nalgene bottle they were using and handed them his size 12 Timberland boot.

Patonk was not a game known for its longevity.

In addition to this, there was also strip poker, played in the usual way, and Fight Night, a spectator sport of gladiator-style wrestling. These were just the games I knew about, the ones I had picked up in conversation or unknowingly walked in on. I’m sure there were more, other hidden, smutty games buried deep in camp lore among smaller, more exclusive groups. And all of them, besides being exclusively male, were banned—‘banned’, rather, since they always found their way in, sometimes through Big Rock and usually at the end of camp. The Tupperware Party was perhaps the greatest proof of this, when the rules became watered down and flexible, at certain points dissolving altogether, and a select few were able to capitalize on the high we all felt that night. Because other than being the last night before we all went home, when we all softened with a wave of anticipatory nostalgia, this was also the night of the altar call—an event of emotional and religious enthusiasm, of happy-crying praise and rededication of the soul. You could feel it, too, the effects of the altar call, even hours after it was over. We all walked the campgrounds at night with a buzzing energy, the shared conviction like an electric charge in the air. The last few lines of a worship song under our breath that rivaled the army of crickets out in the dark. Like the night was going to last forever, and all of us, exhausted but pushing through, were hot with laughter and giddy with sugar and Jesus.

We could do anything for one night, it seemed, which was the obvious, granted sentiment. But more perplexing, at least to me, was that of all things, this—this—is what we had chosen to do.

We didn’t all fit in the kitchenette, so only those of us who were jumping soon formed a snaking line by decreasing size behind the metal brace separating the carpet from the tiled floor. I still sat on the carpet against the wall, watching each jump add two pairs of arms and legs to this growing organism. However, looking around, heads above the other boys and already an octave deep into puberty, I felt increasingly conspicuous. Last summer’s Tupperware Party was Fight Night, and they had made two brothers wrestle, both of them violent, hefty boys with obvious anger issues. I heard the counselors had to step in almost immediately, pulling them off each other, scratching and spitting. So at least this wasn’t that, I told myself, and I didn’t have to wrestle someone to submission in front of an audience. Though, looking at the next boy jump—the way his mesh shorts floated generously in the air, those long muscles and pale feet sprouting knuckle hairs—this hardly felt less humiliating.

One by one, smaller and smaller boys made higher and higher jumps, each one trying to land as softly as possible on top of bodies beneath him, trying to find purchase in the crags of flesh and joints. Unavoidably, the base wobbled, becoming more unsteady with each following jump. But whenever someone yelled Buck-buck! you could see the entire pile clench and brace itself, everyone holding tightly to whatever body part was within reach. I could hardly see Kevin anymore. Just his pained face, windowed between a tangle of arms and a lone foot pressing desperately into his shoulder.

The game ended before I had to jump. The kitchenette was emptying out, and the counselors, noticing trembling limbs and dissipating endurance, were pushing us to jump faster and faster. And just when I had made the fatal mistake of holding eye contact with a counselor for a moment too long and I could see my name forming on his lips, a boy launched himself across the room and jumped.

Buck-buck!

He jumped like he was falling. His arms and legs windmilled, ready to catch and hold onto anything. He landed off-center. He was almost vertical, scrabbling at a wall of backs like a koala that just had its nails clipped. Eventually, he caught a handful of someone’s shirt, but then his leg slipped and there was an awful, throaty rrrrrrrip before he came tumbling down, pulling the entire tower of people down with him.

Big Rock erupted in shouts—some cheers and some calls of disappointment, a few gasps of hand-over-mouth concern as the boys at the base disappeared completely from view. We all approached the collapsed pile and started pulling people up off the carpet and slapping them on the back, squeezing shoulders and arms in congratulations. There was scowling and laughter and light, jocular teasing. The boy wearing just a neck and a sleeve stood up from the middle of the group and held up the other half of his t-shirt high in the air like a trophy. He was not the first or the last boy to jump, but everyone seemed to understand that he was the winner tonight.

The entire room was filled with talk and excitement. The older campers were comparing tonight’s feat to the historic records held in this very cabin years before. The counselor who had looked at me, the one who was about to call my name before everyone came tumbling down, was helping a couple boys move the pool table back onto the carpet. So as quickly and as quietly as I could, I slipped out the front door and out into the night.

My heart was pounding as I skipped down the stairs. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark, so I was moving fast but cautiously, guided by what I heard crunch beneath my feet. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gotten away with something small and juvenile, like pocketing a Slim Jim or a stick of gum at a convenient store. Everyone behind me was laughing and cheering and rubbing carpet burns and sore backs and legs. I doubt they even knew I had left. I pictured the boy with the torn shirt, how he’d tell everyone tomorrow at breakfast what had happened, maybe carrying that rag of a shirt around to prove it. But he was wrong, I convinced myself, they were all wrong, because I was the one who had won tonight.

I realized I was smiling, beaming to no one in particular, which was odd because I also wanted to cry. And shout. And die. I had never felt like this before, had never experienced such an intense, secret relief that made my whole body shake. A couple, a boy and a girl just a year older than me, sat on neighboring swings in the darkened playground to my right as I came down the trail from the gravel road. They looked up at me a moment, pausing their conversation as I took plodding steps in the mulch, but then quickly returned to each other, to her soft, concerned murmurs and his steady nodding.

The trail transitioned to a wide, cement path, and I met a group of girls underneath the bright fluorescent lamplight in front of the bathrooms. The night became suddenly clear, and I shoved my hands deep in my pockets and bit my lip to contain myself. But they were beaming, too, all smiles and laughter, wearing matching friendship bracelets and arm in arm in arm. They hardly slowed down at all. They walked right past me, and the darkness swallowed them up.

The last night of camp, I remembered. You really could get away with anything.

I walked nowhere in particular, following the path to a cluster of cabins and then turning around and walking the other direction. I needed to keep walking, moving, to burn off this newfound energy that was pushing its way through my skin. The night was warm, but my teeth were chattering. I thought about all the boys back in Big Rock, the jumping and scrabbling, and the giant fall that made the ground shake beneath me. I thought about the counselor who looked at me, who saw me. So close to being said, to being named, and yet still just a passing thought. And for a moment, or whatever you call that small pocket of time that seems to exist only in hindsight, when you look back and realize we are children for so much longer than we think, I prayed I could do it all over again.

The next day, I woke up late. Every cabin at camp was still dead asleep, working through a mass, post-bacchanalian coma that would last well into the morning hours. I crept out of bed, showered and dressed, and then made my way down the steps and across the road.

The Den looked filthy in the daylight. Crumbs and playing cards were strewn everywhere. A forgotten zip-up hoodie had molded someone’s backside and was pressed flat against a seat cushion. The early morning through the screen windows illuminated all the dust, lint, and couch fuzz that clogged the air. In the short hallway between the Den and the camp convenient store was high counter for self-serve hot drinks. I added enough sugar to my cup to make my tongue feel like rubber. I left through the side door and walked over to the long benches by the volleyball sand pit. It was a cool morning, warm in the sun, but cold enough in the leafy patches of shade to turn my skin to gooseflesh.

The high from last night was gone. Now, just a spent, ashy log sat in my stomach, sad and brittle. I sipped on my drink and watched my breath come out in front of me. I was tired, still. I might’ve slept four, five hours, but I didn’t want to sleep anymore. I wanted something else. Something more. Somehow, I felt cheated and guilty at the same time.

I looked up at the tall redwoods, the light blue sky behind them. Birdsongs and tiny scratches on bark came from somewhere not too distant, and I found myself missing Big Sur. The trees were different and the bench I was sitting on was much too polished and sturdy, but at this hour, when everyone slept and I had the whole world to myself, it was like I could’ve been anywhere. Camping, maybe. Ten years old again. Thoughtless and sissy.

I could see the parking lot from where I sat. Off to the left. Down the sloping concrete and across a small, dribbling creek. It was empty, though in a few hours it would be overflowing like it had been a week ago. Minivans with flashing hazards falling in and out of sync, parents and siblings in open trunks. Legs dangling. Feet dragging. Everyone reluctant to go home.

I would lie, I decided, surprised at how easily this overt, pre-meditated sin turned over in my head. It would not be hard. There was so much excitement at the end of camp. It would not be hard to convince my parents that I didn’t want to leave, that I ziplined and kayaked with the rest of them and subsisted entirely on ice cream and sloppy joes for a week. I would not tell them about the Tupperware Party, of course. I would not tell them about Buck-Buck. Or Patonk. And, turning hot and red just from the memory of it, I certainly would not tell them how stupid and careless I had been. I would not tell them how someone had caught me ‘checking out’, had found my curious, lingering, not-so-empty eyes in Big Rock’s shower room.

A red Corolla pulled into the parking lot and took a spot next to the concrete basketball court. An older Chinese man, a father, came out the driver-side door in a light blue polo and cargo shorts. He propped his sunglasses up on top of his head and took a slow look around. He looked my way and waved. I waved back and heard movement behind me. There was a group of them, but a boy, a middle school kid with a bowl cut, was walking my way and waving, too.

It came to me as we pulled around an idling white Siena and turned onto the gravel road, joining the slow exodus of cars leaving camp. It was a term I had never heard of until this week, when I sat with a group of boys at a seminar on sexual purity—an uncomfortable, guilt-ridden session nicknamed the ‘Sexinar’—listening to our counselor share his testimony across the back of a turned-around chair. He didn’t notice me there, not like at the Tupperware Party, but his words felt targeted and struck me as prophecy. The unease with his own body, that unshakeable enemy within stoking the darkness and giving life, giving sentience, to those nasty, wandering thoughts. And then he said it, cutting his past clean off himself as if with a swing of a butcher’s knife. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but here it was. Two words. The page-break both of us were looking for.

Late bloomer, I repeated after him, days apart, like the returning echo in a deep canyon. There was something so simple, so elegant about it. Nothing had changed, but it felt like everything had changed.

In twenty minutes, we had cleared the copse of redwoods and entered the gaze of the hot afternoon sun. We drove through tall, golden grass for a mile or two, and then turned to get onto the interstate. I was suddenly tired, hypnotized by the cars whipping past. With my forehead against the warm glass, I let the gentle rocking of the car draw me to sleep.

Next summer will be different, I thought before drifting off. As if waiting, as if time…

The back and forth between my parents in the front seats melted like runoff into the roar of highway traffic. Flits of sunlight burst red and orange across the inside of my eyelids. Unfurling, delicate, vibrant petals.

Yes, that’s it, just a little more time.


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