After finally all the campers had gone to sleep, theirs were the only whispers in all of Camp Bethlehem.
“I can’t sleep.”
This was arguably the best night of camp, when the boys from Aquinas came over for a mid-summer dance.
The scene was textbook puberty, minus the diagrams of genitalia.
A bunch of awkward, skinny, white Christian kids danced to Top-40 pop songs, balancing their guilty consciences and fear of hell/pregnancy/their parents with their desire to be cool, to be liked, to be touched. The pungent smell of bug spray and recently developed sweat glands filled the air, in an invisible fog that was still thick and disorienting. Is it any wonder these bodies had no rhythm?
“Did you think tonight was fun?”
“Kinda. I don’t know. Not really.”
The boys and girls gathered like iron filings, little clusters deposited all along the linoleum floor, the bravest and cutest among them acting as hormonal magnets until finally—just before the last song—the boy-girl polarity pulled bodies together. The McInerny Cafeteria was electric.
“Don’t you wish it lasted longer?”
“Definitely. I think that was the problem. It just felt way too short.”
“I totally agree.”
And just like that, before any counselor had to warn campers to “make room for the holy ghost,” the boys had piled into school buses and gone back to their camp. It was all very abrupt—a dark room, suddenly filled with the jaundice yellow of fluorescent light, and the music replaced with counselors blowing whistles and yelling for boys to line up.
“Did you see when that boy tried to dance with Amanda?”
Isabel giggled—not loudly, but enough to break the whisper tone. It was enough of a response for this exercise.
Camp doesn’t care about romance or subtlety or preserving the special moment; camp has a schedule and pays the bus driver hourly. So, in 8 minutes—less time than it had taken most girls to run the mile in the fitness test—the boys loaded up on school buses, the girls scream-giggling and waving at the rear lights that looked like red glowing eyes as they traced through the winding dusty roads.
“What do you think the boys are doing right now?”
Kerry and Isabel were neither the cutest nor the bravest, but they weren’t entirely plain either, which made the summer dance easier for them, in a way. They hung in the middle of crowds, their ponytails moving in flow with other ponies. They danced when other girls danced. Whispered when other girls whispered. Flirted when other girls flirted.
“But don’t you think that at least some of them are still awake?”
Parents—every parent, not just their own—had said that adolescence would be difficult. Parents always did that: issuing generic warnings out loud to every kid, as if waiting for the piano to cue their solo number in the spring musical, See? What Did I Tell You?
“What do you think those ones are doing?”
“Oh. I have no idea.”
“Yeah, me neither. But I just thought of that. It kinda makes me wonder.”
But to Kerry and Isabel, being 13 didn’t seem so hard. They just had to follow the leader. As long as they didn’t dance too hard or crack too many jokes or—heaven forbid—cry, being nondescript seemed pretty easy. So they weren’t special. Big deal. For teenage girls, mimicry is a form of salvation.
“Wonder about what?”
“Like, I don’t know. Whether two of them are having this exact same conversation right now. Or, like, if maybe they’re sneaking around cabins right now. I don’t know. Just, like, anything.”
Now, lying in their bunks and staring out the screen window, there was no one to copy. They could be themselves, whatever that meant. In practice, it meant long silences and uncertainty. False starts and long pauses.
“Are you hungry?”
And Kerry meant it. She wasn’t hungry, but she didn’t know what else to say or what else she could offer this moment except something from her candy stash.
“Did you like any of the boys?” Isabel asked.
It was always a question with these two. Never an affirmative statement. Never a declaration or an opinion. Just questions and responses. Things seemed less risky that way. Until tonight.
“What do you mean ‘why not?’” Without knowing it, Kerry attempted to rebuff the question with another question. To put Isabel back in the hot seat.
“Like, why not?” Isabel reiterated. “You danced with that boy Danny at the end. Why didn’t you like him?”
The moon was only nearly full, perhaps still a little bit hungry and wanting a midnight snack. It lit the girls dramatically, emphasizing their whiteness against the shadows.
“Ew, Izzy, I don’t know. I just didn’t like him. He was weird. STOP.”
Someone in the bottom bunks stirred, and Kerry and Isabel froze, saying nothing for several minutes, hoping the other girl—whoever it was—would fall back to sleep, give them back their privacy and the moonlight. Neither Isabel nor Kerry closed her eyes. Each girl just waited, knowing the other would too.
“I’m coming over there,” Isabel said quietly.
She grabbed her pillow with her teeth and moved across her bed on all fours so as not to hit her head on the ceiling of the cabin. She struck a form like a lioness with a cub in her mouth, moving quietly across the wooden posts and onto Kerry’s side of the top bunk.
“What are you doing?” Kerry asked, shimmying closer to the window to make room for her friend, her… whatever, Isabel. She still used questions, not because she didn’t know the answers, but rather because she did.
Until now, the girls had been stacked head-to-foot, both on the top bunks on the moonglow side of the cabin. A good six feet of distance stretched between the whisperer and intended receiver, which left too many secrets in the air, floating dangerously, asking for enemy interception. For Dana or Emily or Victoria to use against them in some yet-to-be declared war.
“There. Now we can talk,” said Isabel, stretching out parallel to her friend, in an uneven, lumpy twin bed. Kerry couldn’t believe her friend’s boldness, half-blaming it on the moon, half-hoping it was something else entirely that brought her here.
Kerry’s nerves crawled all over her, worse than the bed bugs that had shut down cabin 18. What if the other girls woke up and saw them like this? What would they think? What would they say about her? What did this mean?
Still so many questions, but none that she had the courage to ask aloud. She sat quietly, too quietly, staring at the ceiling.
“What’s wrong?” asked Isabel.
“I can go back to my bunk if I’m crowding you.“
“No, no, no” whispered Kerry. That was the last thing she wanted. And, if we’re actually tabulating, the first thing she wanted was for Isabel to be exactly where she was, the moon shining across her face. “Sorry. I just never did this before.”
Isabel propped up her head on her elbow, facing Kerry. “Really?”
Kerry shook her head. How was Izzy so confident? How could she possibly be so cool right now?
“Are you scared or something?”
“No,” Kerry said, lying while lying.
“These bunks are sturdy,” Izzy said, grabbing the wooden posts by their heads. “We’re not going to fall or anything.” As her left hand reached for the far post, her torso stretched above Kerry’s head.
To the avid teen moviegoer, this raised obvious questions. What if she touched Isabel? What if she reached up and tickled her lithe stomach? What if she made the next move? What if something happened?
But to Kerry, there were no questions. The innocence and audacity of the gesture answered everything.
Isabel wasn’t a tease or a flirt or a villain. Isabel wasn’t confused or curious or complicated. Isabel wasn’t interested. And more importantly, Isabel had no idea about Kerry’s secret.
“Can I tell you something?” Typical Kerry, asking a question before she’d ever dream of making a declarative sentence.
“Obviously!” Isabel replied.
“I’d literally never be interested in that Danny guy. He’s not my type. Like at all.” It wasn’t an admission of anything, really. But still, Kerry felt relieved. She wasn’t lying.
“Good,” Izzy replied. “Because last year he got to sloppy second base with Laura B, and the whole camp called her ‘Whore-a B’ for the rest of the summer.”
“Yeah. And, like, you’re my best friend, so I just don’t want you with some disgusting jerk who totally doesn’t deserve you.”
“No, I mean the best friend part.”
“Kerry! Of course, you idiot!”
The girls started giggling, quietly at first, and then grew louder and louder. Within seconds, their laughs were contagious and hysterical, the kind that would have stoked a 19th century witch hunt. It didn’t take long for them to wake up the whole cabin and the impotent venom of prepubescent girls, left out of a big secret.
“What the HELL, you guys!”
“Come ON you two! We were totally asleep and EVERYTHING!”
“What’s so funny ANYWAY?”
“Are you two friggin weirdos in the same BUNK?”
“Whatever, just SHUT. UP.”
This was camp; you had to expect your idiot cabinmates to wake you up giggling. Better that than by a skunk spraying its butt-bullets or some scary murderer noise in the woods. Eventually, Izzy and Kerry stopped giggling for long enough to let the other girls punch their pillows and fall back to sleep, not much worse for wear.
And having announced and accepted this new milestone in their friendship, Isabel and Kerry were exhausted too. They held hands, like best friends at camp do, and before long, closed their eyes and invited sleep to join them.
Kerry lie still but her mind tossed and turned, having trouble answering the questions she didn’t ask. What if this was real? What if this is a dream? What if she is what she thinks she is? What if she isn’t?
Sharing this tiny uncomfortable rectangle on this night filled with hormones and moonlight and revelations and questions, she didn’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help her G-O-D.
And that’s where she decided to leave it. Here in the darkness, somewhere between imagination and fact, dream and reality, truth and deception. She asked herself one more question,
If only for one more summer, what if this is enough?