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No. 10 – The Currency of Night

1 Mar

I made a fire on the beach and settled down close to it. The warmth held me where you should have, but couldn’t. No longer did you have any arms, so it wasn’t as though this was your fault. Your choice.

Except it was. I was lying to myself again, pretending. When someone you love dies, you must re-learn to pretend, the way you did when you were four and six and eight, but rarely thirteen. It is a survival tactic. It came back naturally to me, or I had never lost the ability.

I said you had no arms, but you did have hands. I saw them. Your hands were frantically reaching toward the orange crest of every golden flame. Just the shadow of those ten fingers I remember every detail of, every line, every crease. Ten fingers that have touched every part of me, held our babies, traced out our initials into the freshly poured concrete of the foundation of our first home. Your shadow hands were frantic, shooting up toward the stars, attempting to materialize, but leaving only a faint trail of smoke at the tip of every finger.

Keep trying, I whisper softly. The air tastes like salt and carries my voice toward the Gulf of Mexico. I watch the phosphorous glow in lime green ectoplasmic jewels, swirling in the moonlight on the skin of the water. I thought if you stared long enough, it would seem as though the night sky had fallen straight into the gulf and that space was water and the water was all of space, crashing over on itself, unsure of this new choreography.

Little gifts of fish and pretty shells got left on the sand, refugees confused by the new dry land. Gasping for air the way I did when the phone call came that said you were gone. I couldn’t get the sound of that ringing telephone out of my ears for months afterward, no matter how many pills the doctors gave me. It was worse than Hitchcock. It was real life.

The waves bring in more fish, more jewels, and then take some away. Back home.

That’s where they kept telling me you went. Back home. Oh, the scars well-meaning people can leave on your heart. Of course you weren’t home. I expected you home every morning when I woke up in a panic and saw only the emptiness of your side of the bed. You weren’t home and you weren’t coming home.

It wasn’t just a nightmare, it was my life. So real it was pouring blood.

There was no trace of you on the porch, either where we used to sit on summer nights and talk about plans for our future. Our beautiful future.

I didn’t know then that there was no future, but you must have. You knew that every day was a bright miracle and there were only so many nights ahead. I could never appreciate things the way you did. If every night was a coin to be spent, I spent every blasted one as carelessly as a child expecting there would always be more pouring into my greedy little hand. I never knew night was currency and like currency there was an end to it. Once it’s spent, it’s gone.

It’s gone. Which is why I’m here on this beach making a woman-sized dent in this brown sugar sand, being held by the warmth of a fire I have created instead of by my darling husband’s arms. I am hypnotized by the shadow of the ghost of your hands. I add more driftwood, reasoning that if you only had enough fuel…you would appear.

I miss you, I whispered. The flames flicker. Not good enough.

I miss you! I cried. A little better. The flames bend and laugh and stretch.

I want him back! I scream out toward the water, imagining my words are a ribbon coiled into a glass bottle that would hurl itself as either a threat or even half a prayer toward whatever god existed out there in all that blackness.

When the fire dies you go with it. Another coin, another night gone, and I deeply feel the end of it. I leave the fish alone, but shove a few shells into my pocket.

Shells are currency, too except there is no end to them. The water brings more and more and deposits them onto the sand forever. They are real and hard and feel cold and smooth in my hands. They’ll sit on my desk as a reminder of the night I tried to conjure you. A memory, but also a gift. A gift of the knowledge that not everything ends. And even if it does, maybe it’s not really an end. New souls crash onto the shore every minute, realizing all this chaos.

 

© Ashley Noelle, 2012. All rights reserved.

No 9. – Fake British Accent

28 Feb

 

Once you came back from England and your accent had changed. Your parents raised you in Ohio and couldn’t understand how in a week your bland Midwestern accent had become something like the chimney sweep’s in Mary Poppins.

I pretended not to notice your fake accent that day we spoke on the telephone. I pretended to love you, too and that’s more unforgivable I suppose.

If you were searching for an identity, you didn’t find it in Ohio or Japan or even England. None of your many travels seemed to suit you and entire cultures which spanned hundreds of years were tried on, found to be ill-fitting and in a month’s time just fell away from your body like a layer of skin.

You never spoke about it. But who would say, hey remember that time I had a fake British accent?

No.

Some people thought you were cultured, but I saw how carelessly you tossed aside centuries of words, customs, art and history. Your entire personality changed with every new stamp in your passport.

“Hello, love,” you had said to me that day.

Love.

I always took things the wrong way. I said, “yes.”

I said, “I am in love.” And you promised me half of anything you owned, but you never meant it. It was just something romantic you’d thought of and wanted to say to anybody. In a fake British accent.

 

© Ashley Noelle, 2012. All rights reserved.

No. 8 – Marlboro Red

16 Feb

Dear Sir,

I would have addressed this letter to “Marlboro Red,” as that is what I call you, but you would be confused by that and I don’t want to confuse you right from the get go. I’m writing because I want to help you.

I know you smoke Marlboro Red cigarettes because one night last week I sorted through your trash after you put it outdoors for the garbage man to come collect in the morning. I think you can really tell what a person’s life is like by looking at what they throw away. I can tell that your life is very dull and very sad and I want you to know that I’m sorry for you. I found almost nothing in your trash but empty soft packs of those cigarettes and losing lottery scratch tickets. It was a little disappointing, to be honest.  I don’t know what you want the money for, but I’m guessing it’s for more cigarettes, just based on how many empty packs of them you threw away. If it’s not for cigarettes, maybe it’s for more comic books. You look like the kind of person who goes through an awful lot of comic books, if you know what I mean.

You don’t know what I look like, but you know who I am. I’m the girl who lives across the street from you in the big apartment complex. I’m the one who calls your phone every time you leave the house to walk down to Linn’s Corner Market to buy a 2 liter of Coke, a newspaper, and a carton of Marlboro Reds. Two out of three of those things are ruining your teeth, by the way.

I’ve left you several voice mail messages, but obviously you don’t have the technology to figure out where I’m calling from. Like I said, I’m just across the street. I see you’ve cut your hair.

I guess I’m writing to confront you. Lately I’ve noticed that when you get halfway to the corner market, something seems to frighten you and you suddenly turn back and run into your house. You do run funny, but that’s not my point. My guess is, you’re running back to the house to see if I’m calling you or maybe you hear your phone ringing from halfway down the street and you think it might be someone important. In either case, you’re becoming increasingly more and more paranoid and I just wanted to write to express my concern.

I will enclose the business card of my psychiatrist, with whom I have had some success over the past 4 years. If you’d like to ride to appointments together, you let me know. I have a car and I noticed that you don’t have one. Not having a car can be a very big barrier to your getting help for your obvious mental health issues. That said, I do not allow smoking in my car, so don’t bring your nasty cigarettes. If you have some sort of sick attachment to your cigarettes, which I believe you do based on the amount of empty packets I found in your trash, I’ll ask you to take a Benadryl or a Valium, or whatever it takes for you to avoid any unnecessary outbursts while riding as a passenger in my car.

Additionally, when we arrive at the psychiatrist’s office, pretend you don’t know me. Wait outside for me if you get done first. I don’t want you to embarrass me and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think we were dating. If we ever happen to be at Linn’s Corner Market or the library or the post office at the same time, don’t say hi to me. You won’t see me anyplace else because those are the only places I go. Either way, just keep walking. I don’t want to be friends or anything, I’m just trying to do something nice for a neighbor.

If you’d like to know the whole story, I’m paying it forward, so to speak after the old woman downstairs did me a kindness. What happened was, she caught my friend and I smoking pot in our living room, even though we barricaded the cracks in the door with paper towels. She promised not to tell the landlord, and not because I threatened her with a small hammer or anything, but just to be neighborly. So, one good turn deserves another and I have decided that YOU will be the lucky neighbor I will help out in the spirit of passing on the neighborliness.

Since we’re on the subject, I also just want to apologize for whistling the Star Wars theme music out the window whenever I see you outside. I guess I’m just trying to relate to you and let you know that somewhere across the street, somebody understands. I’m not a fan of Star Wars, or any other movie or comic book that nerds like, but I’m familiar with that tune and I guess in a way I thought you’d appreciate my whistling it out to you. In retrospect, it was mean and I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to be confronted with your social awkwardness every time you leave your home.  Oops!

In closing, I would appreciate an answer as soon as possible as to whether or not you are going to do the right thing and make an appointment with the psychiatrist I recommended. If you don’t feel comfortable calling me, just walk outside over by where you usually put your trash and hold up one hand for yes, two hands for no. I promise I won’t call and leave you a voice mail message when you go out to do this. I can see that my doing so has exacerbated your paranoia problems. If you don’t know what that means, you should look it up in a dictionary as soon as possible. I don’t want you getting any wrong ideas about what I mean, just because I use a lot of big words.

Anyway, let me know if you need a ride to get your head checked out. Sooner or later you will probably have to talk to me to tell me when your appointment will be. We have to coordinate. You know, we’re in this together.

Oh, and if you don’t like people prank calling, you may also consider painting over the enormous sign on top of your house that has your phone number on it. I get that you’re trying to run some sort of home comic book business, but honestly it’s just asking for people to call and leave you messages when they see you go outside. If you’re angry at me in any way, you really only have yourself to blame.

Best Regards,

Your Neighbor

 

© Ashley Noelle, 2012. All rights reserved.

No. 7 – the bees

3 Feb

You can’t stop looking. It is obvious that looking is the exact opposite of the proper thing to do. But you can’t quit. And every time you look, it makes you so nervous that you light another cigarette. The smoke temporarily kills the bees that are buzzing and swarming in your gut, but when you look at her photograph again, they just come back to life.

You smoke Lucky Strikes because that’s what you heard Kurt Cobain smoked. You used to fantasize that you’d die at 27, the way he did and the way Janis Joplin did and the way Jim Morrison did, but nobody even knows your name and wouldn’t care anyway. You know this deep down, but you still couldn’t help the surprise when your 28th birthday arrived and you lived through it. Then you were 29 and 36 and 42 and death never came for you and you never got famous.

In fact, if I had to title your autobiography, it would be called Death Never Came & I Never Got Famous. Or something. Anyway, you aren’t memorable for anything except being extremely odd and acting creepy around women. You stammer and clear your throat repeatedly in line at the A&P when the checkout girl is remotely pretty, even if she’s obviously a high school student working after school shifts, and you’re nearing middle-age and starting to go bald around the temples. She’ll hand you your change and politely decline the offer of your idea of a witty joke or maybe even your phone number. She’ll smile and tell you to have a nice day, but her eyes are full of terror.

The same thing happens with the Starbucks barista. Every time you leave the establishment, the conversation is the same. The pretty girl with the dark, curly hair turns to her co-worker and complains that you’re the guy who always comes in and mistakes good customer service for a come on. They talk about how you give off a serial killer vibe and start quoting lines from “Silence of the Lambs,” then laugh. The baristas agree it’s totally gross when a customer takes advantage of the situation they’re in and makes the entire transaction creepy. They both roll their eyes, but you never see this. At Starbucks they believe in good customer service.

You’ve been stalking this girl on the Internet for a while now. It is stalking, but you call it “being interested.” You visit her blog more than 10 times in a day. You have looked through all 2,071 photos of her on Facebook, twice. You know her home address, her cell phone number, where she went to college, what the outside of the building where she works looks like, her parents’ names and social security numbers. This information is all readily available and easy to procure. Other information is more difficult to find, like what her favorite color is, for example and what she throws in her trash. However, you could find that information out with a bit of determination. When you’re interested in someone, the determination flows.

You look at her photograph again, the one you printed at Staple’s and taped to your computer monitor. The one where she’s smiling for her husband who is behind the camera, but you know it’s secretly for you. She’s never said it and you’ve never actually met in person, but you know she’s in love with you. Her eyes are so blue.

The bees swarm.

You’ve lost track of how many hours you’ve spent trying to decide if her eyes are blue or actually green, a fact that disappoints you since you fantasize about conversations you’ll have with her someday, in which you present to her statistical data on how much you’ve thought about her over the years. You think she’ll be impressed with your dedication.

The bees begin to sting and fly into your throat. You light a cigarette and smoke them back down to your stomach where they lie in wait, a dull, moving hum.

In your email there’s a new message. It’s from her. It’s not good news. She says she feels uncomfortable with your friendship, that some things you’ve said have really bothered her and creeped her out. She prefers you stop contacting her. She’s afraid of you.

The bees rage.

Once a girl broke up with you in high school. It was your first girlfriend ever. You went out for a little less than six months and she wrote you a letter asking you not to call her anymore. You went home and chased a bottle of Advil Migraine with a bottle of whiskey. You thought that would show her.

When you woke up in the hospital the next evening, you called your mom and asked if she had explained to your girlfriend what had happened. She said yes, she had but that your girlfriend had hung up on her. You lie in your hospital bed feeling dazed. You wonder why she hasn’t come to see you, begging you to take her back and feeling terrible for what she made you do.

She never comes to visit and never talks to you again. She’s afraid of you. When she sees you in the hallways at school she tries to ignore you, but her eyes are full of terror.

The bees are in your throat now, choking you. You light another cigarette and stamp it out on your arm. You tear the girl’s photograph from your computer monitor, fold it up and swallow it. It presses the bees back down to your stomach, but they’re eating through the paper. Your pulse throbs in your temples where you’re losing your hair and you light another cigarette.

I’ll make her sorry, you think to yourself. You pick up your cell phone where her phone number holds the prominent place of first in your favorite contacts list. Hands shaking, you type out a text. It’s hard to type because the bees are getting through the paper of her photograph that now sits in your stomach. One by one, they’re darting toward your esophagus. The entire world seems to have turned into one pulsating, electric throb.

“By the time you read this I’ll be dead,” you type out and touch the send button. You crawl into bed, bees buzzing inside you, your whole world seeming like a carnival ride that’s gone out of control, but no one pulls the lever to stop the spinning. There is no hope anymore. You pull your sheet up over your head and grind your teeth until you fall asleep.

When you wake up, it’s morning. Something is crawling across your forehead, close to your eye. You slap it away and it buzzes toward the window. It’s a bee. It reaches the window and rams itself into the glass over and over again with tiny thud thud thuds. It is trapped. It’s nature tells it to go toward the light to get outside where it will be free again. The only light in the room comes from that window. The bee flies in circles, always ending up at the window, continuing to thump against glass with its fuzzy body. You watch it for six hours before it drops into the windowsill and stops moving.

 

© Ashley Noelle, 2012. All rights reserved.

No. 6 – John Takes Mary to the Lake

1 Feb

*Note: my tiny fiction series is a collection of fairly short stories written in stream of consciousness style & completely unedited. Please keep that in mind, and enjoy. 

No. 6 – John Takes Mary to the Lake

I asked her to go down to the lake with me. I didn’t tell her what I saw there the night before, hoping that if she saw the same thing it would be her own experience and not in any way influenced by my telling her about mine. I was still shaking as we emerged from my car, the smell of fish scales and tepid water filled me with dread. The same smells from the night before. I tried to hide my nervous horror by lighting a cigarette, thinking I should do something with my hands. I dropped my lighter onto the ground and didn’t even pretend to look for it. There was no way I was going to start searching around in the dark for anything and give those…things the opportunity to–

“Isn’t this romantic?” Mary sighed as she spoke, interrupting my panic and my thoughts. The simultaneous speak and sigh–as I called it–was a talent she had mastered over 17 years of being an adorable girl. I loved her for it. Nothing seemed strange or out of place to her. The smell, the sounds in the distance that sent shivers down my back, the odd quality of light even though it was nearly 11:30 at night. “Did you bring me out here to kiss me?” she asked, her blonde hair shining in the weird light like a halo of fine, spun gold.

I laughed as much as I could manage.

“Or did you have something more devious in mind?” What a flirt she could be. I wasn’t sure if she meant go to third base or kill her and dump her body in the lake.

Jesus, I thought. Where did that come from?

I had never thought about hurting Mary before. Yet, suddenly the thought flashed through my mind along with an image that so disturbed me it made my entire body freeze. Was I losing my mind? This wasn’t like me.

Mary put her soft little hand in one of mine. I concentrated on walking toward the dock just the way I had the night before. I tried not to squeeze Mary’s hand too hard. I would never hurt her. Not for anything in the world. Unless she deserved it.

Deserved it?! I argued with my own voice inside my own head. How could you say something like that? Think something like that? I would never hurt Mary!

I was afraid.

We sat down on the dock and Mary took her shoes off. Red high heels with little bows at the back. Shoes no one would wear outdoors at the lake, except Mary. She stuck her big toe into the black water and shivered, sending ripples out toward a streak of light where the moon shone eerily on the surface of all that darkness.

“It’s cold!” Mary squealed, laughing. She was always such a happy girl and so fun to be with.

“You’ll get used to it,” I told her with no emotion. It sounded as though my voice were coming from the lake and not from my own throat. I tried to ignore it, tried to stop shaking, tried to let my mind go blank. I was waiting for Mary. Waiting for her to see what I saw the night before. I needed to know I wasn’t crazy. But maybe she wouldn’t see anything at all. Maybe she was too sweet, too innocent for them to get to her. Maybe they got to me because I’m corruptible, dishonest. Maybe they knew that about me, could see inside my brain to all the things I never wanted anyone to find out. And worst of all, I was beginning to think coming back to the lake again was a bad idea. Maybe they knew me well enough now that with each visit they could take a little more.

I should have just taken her to the movies, I thought. She would have enjoyed that. She would have worn those red high heels with the little bow on the back of each one and they would have looked more appropriate there than sitting on this broken down old dock at the lake. It was wrong to bring her here. I really was losing my mind. I glanced at her shoes, which were caked with mud on each spiky heel. It was such a shame, those beautiful shoes all covered in mud.

Something stirred and splashed in the water.

“A fish!” Mary yelled joyfully into the night. “It touched my foot!” she cried, smiling and excited.

A voice rose from the spot where Mary now had both feet submerged to the top of her ankles. You must admit, John, it began. What a beautiful image it will be on the front page of the Tribune two days from now. Those little shoes all alone on the dock and the big, bad lake stretching out all around them. Enormous, beautiful, black capital letters for the headline, spelling out: Local Girl Missing, Feared Drowned.

“No,” I said without being sure if I’d said it out loud or not. “You can’t take her. I didn’t bring her here for you!”

The entire lake began to churn with laughter. Cold, scaly sounds that were meant to terrify. Mary didn’t seem to notice. I closed my eyes, tight. I was going crazy. I was going to end up in one of those white, padded rooms with my arms tied around my back. I squeezed my eyes shut tighter and tried to make my mind go blank to the voices that were calling out for me, for Mary. The voices that wanted me to give her to them. I put my hands over my eyes.

Suddenly a new voice interrupted the hideous, drilling lake voices. It called out sharply, and with a loud banging sound: “Police, open up!”

I opened my eyes. I was in bed, I realized. The police at my door.

And a handful of golden blonde hair tangled and intertwining the sweaty fingers of my right hand.

 

 

 

 

No. 5 – the party

22 Jan

 

The party wasn’t my idea of a good time. Full of low-grade celebrities, reality TV show participants, and flocks of supposed fans. I fit into exactly zero of these categories. I tried to look amused as I was introduced to a stream of people, all with Crest White-stripped smiles that said, aren’t you happy to meet me. It wasn’t a question, it was a fact. At least, they all thought it was a fact. No one had ever told them any different. No one had ever gripped their hand, shaking it up and down, looked them dead in the eyes and said, “hi, go fuck yourself.”

I pressed my sweaty palm into hand after hand, smiling and smiling, moving down the line the way you do at weddings and funerals.

Congratulations, congratulations. I’m sorry for your loss.

The most obnoxious of all the evening’s guests was a blonde girl by the bar. She was pretty in that way your second cousin who lives in Kansas is pretty. Ruddy, farm girl cheeks and a face that hasn’t changed since eleventh grade. Not glamorous, not sexy, just girl-next-door-who-sings-at-church-pretty. Yet, I dreaded my arrival at her outstretched little hand. Of everyone there, cameras swarmed and flashed around her the most. Her smile never wavered. She made enormous gestures with her hands when she talked, like she thought that’s what famous people do. Her wrists were both covered in many colorful Bollywood-style bracelets, which I happened to be wearing, too. I was immediately embarrassed, hoping she wasn’t going to see them and shout something like, samesies! or think I had bought them to be just like her.

As I approached the blonde girl, she smiled and looked into my face with her sparkling, yet dead eyes. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone with eyes a color so nondescript that I couldn’t tell if they were a mottled green-gray like the little rocks in the bottom of my fish aquarium, or just varying shades of dark gray over medium gray. I kept staring into them, wondering how she managed to make them sparkle. She must have thought I was enamored with her beauty. She giggled, her cheeks turning up into round little apples, pink and fresh.

“Hi, I’m Amanda Grace, it’s so nice to meet you!” It felt like she was shouting at me.

Amanda Grace. Was that her first and middle name or was her last name actually Grace? I took note of the trace of a Georgia accent in her voice. It sounded like “they” were attempting to beat it out of her with speech therapists, acting coaches, and voice lessons. Up close I noticed she had a ridiculous amount of makeup on, so much so that she may have actually had to use paint thinner to get it off. Her hair was dark at the roots and fried at the ends. More evidence of a lab-created star. I wondered if that was even her real name.

Cameras continued to flash in Amanda Grace’s face, making her eyes grow wider and her gestures become larger and larger until she was practically waving her hands wildly in the air like she was on The Price is Right and had just spun 1000 on the Big Wheel, her bracelets ringing and clanging together.

“I’m Carolyn,” I muttered. Amanda Grace beamed at me.

“Thanks for watching!” she cried into my face, leaning in as though she thought I were hard of hearing. As though her status as a reality TV star and my status as absolutely no one made some cavernous distance between the two of us she actually had to shout across for me to be able to hear her.

I just stood there, looking confused. Watching what? I thought to myself. I wanted to blurt something out, like “I don’t even know who you are,” or “oh, I don’t watch television,” or “I had these bracelets before I met you,” but I couldn’t bring myself to that level of rudeness. I was annoyed and uncomfortable at the party, but I hadn’t lost the ability to maintain some semblance of my fine upbringing. My extremely proper British grandmother would have been proud at the way I smiled politely instead, took her hand in mine and said, “You’re so welcome, best of luck to you in your future endeavors, Amanda.”

I looked down at our hands clasped together, our bracelets jangling and banging into one another to create strange music. And there between the many colorful bracelets I saw we both had scars on our wrists.

I moved down the line, shaking hand after semi-celebrity hand, in a bit of a daze and mumbling into each firm grip.

Congratulations, congratulations, I’m so sorry for your loss. 

 

No. 4 – camp confessional

21 Jan

Summer camp was technically seven days and seven nights of early-adolescent debauchery. At least, that’s how we thought of it at the time. We’d play pranks on each other. Fill condoms with whipped cream from a can and smear maxi pads with red magic marker and leave them stuck to the walls when the counselors came to inspect our cabins for order and cleanliness.

My best friend, Karen was lying next to me on the weathered, gray dock that stood above one edge of Lake Timberfall, which was more of a glorified pond than a lake, with green, brackish water that tasted exactly like every summer since I was ten.

I was thirteen then, smeared with sunscreen that smelled like pink chemicals and wearing the new fuchsia bikini my mother would die if she knew I had purchased with my babysitting money. My goal of the summer was to find a boyfriend and to make out with him. A lot.

“There are so many kids this year that there’s no way the adults can keep track of all of us,” said Karen in a voice that told me she was thrilled with the possibility and excitement of all the rule breaking. Back home Karen was a good girl, following the rules and doing well in school. At camp, Karen was an instigator, a loudmouth, a back talker. She spent a good deal of time being lectured by camp counselors and sitting in a room by herself as punishment for some misdeed.

Karen was the coolest girl I knew apart from me, and as my best friend, we were unstoppable.

“You know what’s weird?” Karen said, dreamily staring up at clouds that barely seemed to move in the blue, perfect sky. So many of our conversations started this way, with the realization that something was weird.

“Hmm?” I responded.

“It’s so weird, how like, one minute everything can be so perfect, and the next minute everything is going so, like…wrong,” Karen said softly. The strain of her mind being blown by this realization was evident in her voice. I knew what she was talking about. It was this boy she liked, Lonnie. Sometimes it seemed like he liked her, too. He would spend time talking to her and she’d just glow. Then there were other times when he’d ignore her or make fun of her when his friends were around and she wouldn’t smile the rest of the entire day.

“Totally weird,” I agreed.

Pondering the oddities of existence as a human on planet Earth with your best friend is, was, and always will be one of the finest things in life. If you’ve never done it, make a point to do so for at least two minutes tonight and thank me in the morning.

Days at camp were spent in little classes broken up by meals in a hall that seemed gigantic then, chanting obediently at the appropriate times, singing songs, and complaining when you had KP duty. It was like being a little soldier, but with more archery and fewer guns. Okay, no guns at all, really. Just the actual threat of other kids spreading rumors about you, which could be almost as bad as being shot, I thought.

On the second day of camp, someone made up a rumor that Jenny, a girl from our cabin had a sick obsession with hot dogs and had actually been caught by one of the camp counselors stealing them from the kitchen. The rumor went on to say Jenny was planning to add the stolen hot dogs to the stash of hundreds she kept in a locked suitcase under her bed.

Hot dogs. Locked in a suitcase. Under her bed. Everyone believed this.

Jenny was a quiet girl with a sad face, an easy target. She spent the remainder of camp on her own, unable to shake the reputation that she was a disgusting hot dog theif/hoarder. Other kids, especially the girls laughed and whispered to one another behind cupped hands every time they saw her. Sometimes Jenny would wake me up at night with a whimpering cry from across the cabin, her form shaking beneath her sleeping bag in the near total darkness. I listened, frozen as she cried herself back to sleep. I never said anything to her, but I did lie in bed going over and over in my mind hypothetical conversations I could have with her, in which I was always the sweet, helpful heroine who talked Jenny out of hanging herself over loving hot dogs so much.

>>>>>.<<<<<

It was night again and time for the ritual known as “campfire,” in which every single person in camp walked in what was supposed to be silence–but was more often a parade of giggles–to a large clearing in the woods where an enormous fire was blazing in a pit. There we heard announcements for the coming day, surprises about activities that weren’t listed in the camp brochure that were supposed to excite everyone, but always left me feeling bored and empty. And then the strangest part, called “testimonials,” when people would randomly stand up in front of the group and confess to their deepest, darkest sins. I couldn’t understand why they did it. Maybe it was the darkness, or the knowledge that most of the fellow campers were strangers you’d never see again until next summer, or the odd phenomenon of the emotional frenzy campers would whip themselves up into year after year, as though it was what was expected. As though summer camp was a place to purge demons, or to have a scheduled, on cue nervous breakdown.

One girl my age stood up and told us all about how she was addicted to sniffing hairspray to get high. She said she kept at least four bottles of the cheap, Suave aerosol cans in her backpack at all times, just in case she needed a fix. She sniffed hairspray in the bathrooms at school, in her room at home, at the mall. Her parents didn’t know and if they found out, they’d send her to juvie, she just knew it. She was scared this hairspray sniffing thing was a real problem. She burst into tears near the end of her speech, and fifteen kids crowded around her, hugging her and putting their hands on her back and head in a show of support.

A boy got up and said he felt ashamed of his lack of ability at sports. He said his dad pushed him to play basketball and he hated every minute of it. He didn’t want to disappoint his dad, but he was sick of the other guys making fun of him in the locker room, calling him names he couldn’t repeat and threatening to kick his ass. He couldn’t tell his father the other guys on the team hated him. He said he’d rather die than his father find out no one wanted him on the team. The boy’s voice cracked and he stopped talking. Kids surrounded him, whispering encouragement, patting him on the back.

I just sat there on the grass, wracking my brain for any dark secrets I may have that would make me seem cool and mysterious. I couldn’t think of any that weren’t just completely uncool and embarrassing, so I kept my mouth shut. Karen never told any of her secrets either, though I knew she had them.

At the end of all these true confessions we had a prayer in which the entire group would join hands. This was my favorite part because I would always position myself in such a way that I would be holding hands with a boy, which gave me a little thrill. I had my eye on one of the counselors that year. His name was Rudy and he had curly brown hair and bad acne scars. He was thin and not at all athletic, but he was hilarious and to me that made him the hottest guy at camp. I held his hand during the prayer and rubbed my thumb back and forth across the base of his palm and at the top of his wrist. I thought this was extremely erotic, but he never said anything about it. In fact, he never looked me in the eye again.

When the prayer was over we walked solemnly back toward our cabins. Karen and I ran to catch up with the two boys we liked best who weren’t counselors, Lonnie and Joe. Karen loved Lonnie, so I supposed I loved Joe. Any chance we could get to spend time with them alone, flirting and showing off, we took. I was cold and Lonnie let me wear his beloved White Sox jacket, which made Karen sneer at me. I just gave her a look like I didn’t know what she meant and smiled to myself, knowing I was messing with her a little. When we reached the door to our cabin, we all stood there for a while, not wanting the night to be over. I gave Lonnie back his jacket, and he and Karen decided she would walk Lonnie to his cabin. Karen was probably trying to leave Joe and I alone, since Joe was Lonnie’s best friend and I was her best friend, it was her goal to get Joe and I together.

I was still upset that Rudy hadn’t returned the gesture of my stroking his hand and wondered silently to myself if I’d ever get a boyfriend. Maybe no one really liked me at all. Maybe I was ugly. It was a thought that had crossed my mind many times before, so maybe it was true. My nose was too big. My belly button was weird. I was ugly. Maybe I was on the verge of being like Jenny, stuffing stolen hot dogs into a freaking suitcase and spending all my time alone. Then again, that was just a rumor, wasn’t it?

Well, wasn’t it?

Maybe I’d get so upset about not having a boyfriend on top of having to listen to Jenny the Hot Dog Lover cry and whimper all night like a fat baby puppy crying for milk, that I’d resort to sniffing hairspray. Only, I didn’t buy the aerosol kind. I only had the squirt bottle kind and I imagined myself standing in front of the mirror, squirting it into my face, eyes closed and inhaling deeply. That seemed gross. I didn’t want to end up that way. I needed a boyfriend. Karen had Lonnie and if I didn’t have someone, I’d be alone. I looked up at Joe.

“Can you believe that guy’s dad?” Joe said, his voice serious. He was standing too close to me and I was leaning against the cabin door, shaking a little without the warmth of Karen’s boyfriend’s jacket.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It’s so sad.” I sniffed a little, a nervous habit.

Joe must have thought I was crying. He put his arms around me and swayed back and forth, like awkward dancing. I put my arms around his waist, feeling the heat of his chubby body. I was a combination of disgusted and in awe of the fact that a boy–any boy–was holding me, rocking me back and forth, paying attention to me. This had never happened before. Was this love? Was Joe going to kiss me?

Well, was he?

Suddenly I was crying. Hot, irrational tears streaming from my eyes and into Joe’s t-shirt. He held me tighter and we just stood there, swaying together in the night, crying and not speaking a word.  This became a ritual of sorts. Every night after campfire was over, Joe would walk me to my cabin and we’d stand there swaying in each other’s arms as I cried. It was never difficult for the tears to come. Night after night, on command, I would cry the moment we got back to my cabin. Right on cue. Sorrowful, pathetic, mournful sobbing into Joe’s shoulder.

Night after night.

I wasn’t sure if that made Joe my boyfriend or not, and he never kissed me. It felt good, though, the attention from a guy. I had never had that and I sometimes thought about what that might mean. Usually while I was in bed, wide awake after Jenny woke me up with her own nightly sob-fest. It had something to do with my father, I decided. My father who was hardly ever around, and when he was around only proved himself to be a source of pain and cruel criticism, not love.

Was I in love with Joe because I hated my father?

Freud would have the answer, I thought. I scanned my mind for anything I knew about Freud, but nothing much came up. A face with glasses and a white beard, something about a complex, a fixation. Maybe I had a complex of some sort. I just knew it all had something to do with my father and that Freud would have something smart to say about it. Something that made sense of the whole thing.

>>>>.<<<<

When camp was over we all went home with our suitcases full of dirty clothes (and for some of us, hot dogs…or hairspray) and attempted to readjust to our regular lives and answer the millions of questions our parents eagerly asked about our time at camp. When Karen started talking to me again after my wearing Lonnie’s jacket, we spent the last few days of summer before school started up again lying on beach towels on the sidewalk outside her house, attempting to re-live those fine days on the dock at camp.

“You know what’s really weird?” I said to Karen from my place next to her on my favorite flamingo-covered beach towel.

“What?” Karen asked, tilting her sunglasses up a bit, squinting at me.

“It’s so weird that someone could spend every night holding someone else while they cry and then never even kiss them or like, answer any of the letters written to them by that person.” I had sent ten letters to Joe, one even included a lock of my own hair, which I thought was romantic. He had never written back.

“Totally weird,” Karen agreed. She knew exactly who I was talking about, even though I had never told her about the letters. And then, in true best friend form she added, “I bet he’s gotten addicted to sniffing goddamn hairspray.”

It was the first time I had ever heard Karen say a swear word. We burst into laughter that undoubtedly annoyed the entire neighborhood and rolled over to make sure our tans were even.

We grew up a little.

~fin~

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