Earlier, before dinner, a bunch of us - me, Tony, Justin, Phil, and Brian of all people (Brian was really okay when you got him off the Bible) decided to ask if we could sleep down by the lake on the beach that night, just for the hell of it. The counselors said okay, so at nightfall we grabbed our sleeping bags and stuff and went down to the sand, now cool to our bare feet. Frank came too, and three or four kids from the other cabin.
Now, we were stretched out on the sand, talking, and looking up at the stars. I had no clue about which constellations I was looking at. The stars have always confused me. Some kid from the other cabin was telling an endless story about the time he took apart his bike and then couldn't put it back together again: "...and the last bolt was stuck, I mean stuck. So I had to..."
Phil was next to me on one side, Tony on the other. Justin was next to Phil.
Justin. One sleeping bag away from me. It wasn't planned or anything.
Tony and I were talking, like always: "Man, I do not wanna go back to school in two weeks. I don't even wanna talk about it." "So, why are you talkin' about it?" The waves lapped the shoreline, beyond our feet, summer lake under the stars.
"... and I knew my dad had some Liquid Wrench around somewhere, you know, that spray stuff in a can..."
Lying on my back, looking up. Slow parade, so slow you couldn't see it moving. Wheeling around the North Star... I think... Which one was the North Star?
"Hey, if you went to my school, I bet you'd complain. At least you don't hafta put up with nuns."
"...and the pieces were scattered all over, I mean all over the garage floor, and my dad said I'd hafta..."
Is that the Big Dipper up there? Or the Little? Geez, how can you tell?
"So, do you ever get away from the nuns? Like, they don't coach the soccer team, do they?"
Maybe there's a Medium Dipper??
"...and then, I couldn't find the allen wrench, so I had to use my dad's pliers, and..."
"Ha, ha, very funny. Nuns, coachin' soccer. I can just see Sister Martha Mothballs runnin' wind sprints with us."
They told us the stars are all different down south of the equator... I guess there's a bunch of Dippers down there, too... damn...
"...and the frame had a scratch on it that wasn't there before, and I was P.O.'ed, but it was too late..."
"So Danny, you gonna try out for striker again? Too bad you're not in my school. I'd beat your butt into the ground on defense."
How does anybody get all this junk straight? I don't even wanna think about what happens when you throw in comets and planets and stuff... Why can't they all have connect-the-dots lines, like in the books?
"...and then, my little bro came out, an' said, 'Hey Chad, what're ya doin'?' and natcherly he kicked a bunch of lock-washers all across the garage floor..."
I still can't believe those things are balls of glowing gas. Man, they look so cold up there...
"Yeah, like fun you would. You wouldn't even see the ball if you were guardin' me."
Slow parade, taking all of time to complete.
"...and then, the damn cat came in, 'cause my little bro left the door open, and the cat started playin' with the bike chain like it was a string, ya know? and then..."
"Ya know, Danny... we'd beat everybody's butt with you and me on the same team. Wanna transfer? You don't have to turn Catholic. The nuns aren't so bad."
Tony and me. Phil on my other side. Frank, down the line somewhere. The kid with the dysfunctional bike, four or five sleeping bags away. Other voices, other lives. The long summer lake at our feet, the stars overhead, the night pressing in all around...
... and over there, next to Phil, there was Justin...
... ohh, Justin was over there, next to Phil, all right, he was there all right, he wasn't saying a word, he might not even be awake, but he was there, and now that the conversation's lagged, I felt it again, I'm drawn back to him like an iron filing to the magnetic pole, he was there, and it was only a couple of hours ago that we were out in the woods together, and now that it's quieter, I remember, I can't forget... how could I ever forget...
Abruptly, I turned over onto my stomach. "Hey Tony, I'm gonna crash. We got to paddle all the way back to camp tomorrow." "Yeah, guess you're right... must be gettin' late, anyway..."
Ahh, Tony. You're so cool. I like you a lot. I like you a lot, and maybe, someday, maybe. But you're not the reason I'm on my stomach now, you're not the boy who's got me pressing my body against the soft, yielding beach sand, remembering... that impossible longing... craving...
"...and by the time I found all the damn washers, my dad had to mow the lawn, and he told me to move everything to one side so he could get the lawnmower out, and natcherly that was gonna mess up my whole damn layout, but he was waitin', and so..."
Justin. It was gonna happen. It almost happened. But the twig snapped.
Face down, I squirmed. Face down, chest, stomach, thighs. And down here, too, were stars. They were nameless. No constellations. But I knew these stars. Not cold, not impersonal, not arranged in meaningless connect-the-dots patterns. They were hot, and real, and close. Hot breath on the sand. He's there.
Why did that twig snap, two hours ago, out there in the woods? We were so close to it, so close... maybe I'm a couple years younger than you, but I was ready, I'm ready now...
I was on fire, a hot ball of glowing gas. Connecting the dots. Just a few left, now.
Some time later, on my back again now, I fell asleep looking up at the endless sky, and woke up the next morning with my upturned face all wet with dew.
We headed back the next afternoon, not long after lunch and rest period. I was in the middle, Tony in front of me, Phil behind, paddling steadily down the long summer lake. We were all tired. It was hot on the water, height of the day, pinnacle of the sun's fire. I was wearing a tank top and shorts when we set out, but after a while my shirt got too hot and I took it off. Tony did the same, and then Phil.
Tony in front of me, stroking, his smooth arm muscles working cleanly, stroking, his bare back bent to the task, stroking, his shorts pulled low as he leaned forward, white underwear showing against his summer tan, his black hair brushing his neck, breathing hard as he worked, stroking and stroking, liquid rhythm.
Behind me, Phil. Looking at my arms, my back, my underwear, my tan, as I stroked. What was he seeing, hearing? What did he feel, then?
Three boys, heading down the long summer lake. The next day was closing day, last day of camp, and we'd scatter off to our different homes and schools and lives. We knew. Nobody said anything about it. That would be then. And this was now. Three shirtless boys in a canoe, heading down the long summer lake, strung out, exhausted, but alive with the sun and the moment. Three shirtless boys on the long summer lake. Frozen in time in the hot afternoon.
By the time we got back to camp, we all had mild sunburns. It was okay. It was okay, now and forevermore.
We finished packing with a little time to spare, so Tony and Justin and Phil and I went down to the dock for a last look. We sat on the dock with our feet hanging above the water, and talked about stuff. I don't remember what.
Last-day blues. I knew I wouldn't see my new friends, ever again most likely.
Nobody spoke about it. You can't. How do you tell another boy you're going to miss him? We had our wrestling matches and our teasing and our boy-chaos. But none of that is talked about, when you're 9 or 10 or 11 or 12. And goodbyes don't happen. We always wish they had, later. But sometimes, the door closes, and only afterwards you realize there's no doorknob on the other side. Just a mirror.
The bell rang, time for the final assembly. We went up the path, still talking. I sat with Phil when we got to assembly. Tony and Justin sat in front of us. The director told us what a great group we were, hope we had fun, be sure to come back next year (and bring our friends and relatives)...
I don't remember what he said, because Tony was sitting on the bench directly in front of me, and I was busy pulling the back of his shorts down. Hit-and- run underwear-flasher. Drive-by mooning. I tried to stifle my giggles, unsuccessfully. He tried to kick me from under the bench, but his legs wouldn't reach.
Justin was sitting to Tony's left. I tried to do the same thing to him, once. Got my fingers inside the elastic of his briefs. Justin didn't try to kick me. He just grabbed my hand. And held it about a quarter-second longer than he had to, before he threw it back at me without looking. I didn't giggle. Maybe I imagined that little time-lag. Maybe I wanted to. I don't know. I didn't do it again.
My mom had arranged at the last minute for me to ride back with Phil, because she couldn't come, and that was okay - I loved my mom, but it would be more fun to ride back with Phil. When assembly was over, we went over to the parking lot to see if his folks had arrived. They had.
Tony and Justin got separated from Phil and me as soon as assembly was over. I never saw either of them again.
Phil's dad came down to the cabin with us and helped us haul our stuff back to the car. We were the earliest kids to move out of the cabin. Nobody else was there.
Blues again. No more than a few minutes. Summer clouds, passing across the face of the sun, shadows racing across the summer lake-surface, revealing depths, then moving on and letting the warmth return.
Phil's parents had a nice picnic for us and his little sister, who had come up too. Nobody else I knew around us except good old Brian, who was sitting near us with (I assume) his parents. We got up to leave, and I waved, and he waved.
We went out to the parking lot. I turned back for a last glimpse of the lake, but it was hidden down through the woods. Still August, but a couple of the trees had begun to show yellow leaves already. Summer's end. Soon the woods would be all yellow and ochre and brown, and the sand up on that far beach where we'd slept and dreamed would be cold, so cold to the touch, and the long summer would be gone, and the lake would be slate-gray. We got in Phil's parents' station-wagon and left.