By Michael Lowenthal

Unmolested

True Story, Issue #17

In the wake of a sex-abuse scandal at an all-boys’ summer camp, an openly gay alum returns as a “guest-star counselor.” But then, he finds himself not only a role model but also the object of an adolescent camper’s crush.

Why did it take me so long to think of tracking him down? In 2002, I’d published a novel that starred a boy inspired by him, and once I’d forged my fictional kid, I tried hard to smother thoughts of the real one. Whenever someone asked me if the book was based on a boy I knew, I hedged: “Nah, I mostly made him up.” Gallantly protecting him, I wanted to believe, but more truly protecting myself from old, dismaying questions.

Over the next fifteen years, I liked to tell myself I’d made meaning out of his life: planted the scanty seed of him and grown a magic beanstalk of what if? But I could never stop wondering about the actual him. Then one day, at my writing desk, inventing another teenage boy—my stories are overpopulated with them—I was hit by a truth I must have worked to keep at bay: by now he’d be findable on the web.

I’ll call him Ricky, which sounds almost right: boyish, a little innocent, a little insolent. His real name, when I searched, got half a million hits; I braced myself for a long wild-Google chase. But when I added the name of the state where he grew up, I was rewarded promptly with a decade-old YouTube thumbnail that showed part of a face—only a nose and mouth—that I sensed right away must be his. The shade of his mixed-race skin, like something just this side of burned, was more vivid than I’d let myself remember.

The video, a clip from a local TV newscast, starts with a solemn anchorwoman at a desk. Above her shoulder, a graphic hovers: a fist smashing apart the symbols for male and female, and a simple, stark, blue-lettered word. Assault.

Then there’s Ricky, standing on the front lawn of a house, taller than he was when I knew him, and filled out but still remarkably skinny, his slimness magnified by the hang of his baggy jeans. His hair’s buzzed tight, and you can see it’s thinning at the temples, even though, in the video, he was only twenty-five—almost as old as I was when I knew him as a fourteen-year-old. (By now he’d be—I can scarcely believe it—thirty-five.)

The camera pans down to the grass, where pants and a shirt are arranged like a Sunday-best ensemble set out on a schoolboy’s bed. We zoom in: the clothes are spattered with stains. Blood.

Ricky explains that he was at a club when a young man waved at him, a feminine flip of the wrist, meant to taunt. Why would you do that? he says he asked, and the stranger up and punched him. He tried again: Why are you hitting me? And there his memory ends. His lip and chin needed nearly twenty stitches.

The victim is sure, a reporter says, that he was attacked because of his sexuality.

Watching Ricky, I flailed atop a rough surf of feelings. A sober satisfaction, to hear his gayness confirmed. Grief, to know his sexuality was still, or again, causing pain. And, above everything, a charged expectation. Ricky, whenever I’d thought of him, had been stuck in the glaze of memory, never progressing beyond his teenage self, but here he was, evolved, of age—which meant we might finally be able to talk through what had happened.

The reporter interviews a policewoman, who says she’s studied security footage but has seen nothing to match Ricky’s claims. Witnesses were intoxicated; accounts of the fight conflict; police, therefore, aren’t ready to deem whatever happened a hate crime.

But Ricky comes on-screen again; his dark, seductively doleful eyes well up. If he weren’t gay, he insists, his lip would not be split. It’s unclear whether he’s blaming the assailant or, in a sense, blaming his own gayness.

His tears took me back to the summer when I knew him, to the muddle of him: his honest anguish, his canny machinations. And, just as I’d been back then, I was torn between the conviction that I should keep my distance and the jolting urge to throw my arms around him.

• • •

In 1997, my friend Colin[*], who’d become director of the boys’ camp where we’d gone as kids and, later, worked on staff together, asked me back for a weeklong stint as a kind of “guest-star counselor.” His putative reason was that I was a Pathfinder. This was the camp’s name for its highest achievement rating, awarded to boys who mastered a list of woodsy survival skills (catching a fish without a hook, lighting a fire with a bow drill). The designation—as parochial as a silly family nickname—carried zero worth beyond the camp, but in our heated, insular sphere, it counted for everything. In fifty-eight years, fewer than ten boys had earned the title.

“I think we’ve found the next one,” said Colin. “We need you to come and teach him!” The long-distance line failed to damper his rah-rah voice. I could picture his crinkly smile, his sandy swell of hair.

I’d not been a counselor at the camp in seven years; my trapping and orienteering skills were rusty, to say the least. I was twenty-eight and a writer in Boston, my summers filled with literary events and late-night clubbing. Before I could explain all this, Colin repeated, “We need you,” and I suspected he meant something deeper.

The camp was still recovering from an existential blow. Three years earlier, a former director—the man who’d taught the man who’d taught the Pathfinder skills to me—had been convicted of sexually molesting a teenage boy. After the news broke, more than a dozen other alumni came forward, citing abuse that had taken place during my time as a camper and earlier. Almost as distressing as the revelations themselves was the sudden, glaring obviousness of what it seemed we must have willed ourselves not to see: that elements of the camp’s core culture had helped to foster abuse.

The place was a hash of Quaker values (simplicity, social justice), back-to-the-land ruggedness, and flower-child free spirit. Campers milked goats and helped to build the rough-cut-lumber cabins, quoting Kahlil Gibran’s maxim that “work is love made visible.” A hippie-dippy fantasyland? These days, I can roll my eyes. But for a kid like me, who grew up in the sterile, selfish suburbs, the camp’s strenuous utopianism was thrilling. Its most affecting ethic was a malleable masculinity: “Attaboy,” counselors cheered when we dug a ditch or chopped a tree; they just as heartily called us brave if we talked about our fears. At the daily “meeting for worship,” we were encouraged to stand before the whole camp community and express our most intimate ideas. It took two summers before I mustered the courage to rise and speak, but when I did, I felt I’d finally found my truest voice.

But the camp had an even weirder side.

Its founder, putting his own spin on the Quaker belief in “that of God in everyone,” had espoused a radical openness: if we all have God within us, our bodies are thus divine, and we should never feel ashamed to bare them. At camp, this meant we always swam unburdened by bathing suits, and also often canoed, and roughhoused, and grubbed in the garden, nude. Our group showers were situated on open, wall-less platforms, in plain view of anyone passing by, and our outhouses were multi-seaters—some designed for four at once—with no doors, no dividers between the holes.

Did this seem kooky, even cultish? Of course. But as with any cult, for those who embraced its offbeat ways, the camp inspired a great sense of purpose. Conventional camps had nothing more at stake than “color wars”; ours, we let ourselves believe, was a liberating force, unbinding humanity one tan-line-less body at a time.

All too liberating, it turned out. The very customs that many of us had experienced as so freeing had offered cover to sexual predators.

The camp eliminated nakedness from its program. The staff received rigorous training in how to prevent abuse. But how much of what made the place unsafe could be erased without killing off what made it special?

My rah-rah pal Colin, cheerfully upright, was seen as the ideal director for rebuilding, a bridge between the old-timers and a new, tradition-bending generation. I think he wanted me back at camp—did he say this, or just imply it?—because I, too, straddled a seeming chasm: as a Pathfinder, a paragon of the camp’s more macho aspects, but also openly, even blithely, gay. When I’d last worked at the camp, just after college, my then-boyfriend had taken a job in the kitchen, sweating over vats of Cream of Wheat and macaroni, and though he slept in the cooks’ cabin he often visited mine, where campers welcomed him like a favorite in-law. We’d made no big announcement of our status as a couple, but simply went about with our customary closeness, and the boys seemed to take the fact in stride. In 1990, this felt like a significant step forward.

The camp, for all its bohemianism, had never been immune from prejudice; in fact, its rampant nudity had maybe worsened the problem. Picture a dozen naked boys wrestling on a dock: What are you looking at? one accuses, and Don’t be queer, says another, lest anyone, God forbid, imagine anything erotic in the scene. (When I was a camper, attracted to boys but scared of what that meant, the mixed message of bodily freedom and scorn caused me no end of torment.) In the wake of the scandal, Colin dreaded a surge of stigmatization; given how readily our culture conflates gayness with predation, any display of male-to-male affection might be censured, and gay staffers might closet themselves for fear of being suspected as abusers. But I could use my big-fish-in-a-tiny-pond prestige to show that it was possible to condemn improper sexual contact without fomenting homophobia. By talking about my sexuality, I could spark discussion—an antidote to the willful ignorance that had helped enable abuse.

Colin did say a less stiff version of this. I’m sure he did; he was always scrupulously honest. I was the one who wasn’t quite straightforward. I told him I was grateful for his conscientious leadership, and I’d be glad to do my part for a place I loved so much.

What I didn’t say was that I’d been planning to write a novel—a novel about a boys’ camp beset by accusations of abuse—but was stuck, with nothing but pages and pages of aimless notes. Given this opportunity to immerse myself in camp, to study boys and men of the sort who’d populate my story, maybe I could find the novel’s heart.

Why did I keep this from Colin? If you’d asked me then, I might have cited a common writerly fear of being seen as a moral scavenger. But what really muzzled me was more thorny. A novel about abuse would, of course, have to feature an abuser. In order to write that character fully, I’d have to nourish some sympathy for him, and I felt unready to defend that sympathy—not to Colin, and maybe not to myself.

I packed my boots and sleeping bag, and headed off for my week up in the woods.

• • •

Colin introduced me during lunch, onstage in the dining hall, with the fanfare you might expect for a swashbuckling film star who also happened to be an Olympic sprinter. The smallest kids stepped up onto their benches for better views, and the older boys squinted toward the stage as if at sunlight. Stomping their feet in acclaim, they shook the wagon-wheel chandeliers dangling from the rafters.

When the hubbub subsided, we went back to eating, and I could sense the campers tracking my every move. (That’s how a Pathfinder takes a sip of juice!) The adulation felt troubling—hadn’t the deification of leaders been part of the camp’s problem?—and also more than a little ludicrous: in Boston, I was just a no-name, rejection-collecting writer.

Maybe what troubled me most was that their worship felt great. I loved it.

After the meal, as I left the lodge, a horde of ten-year-olds swarmed me, tugging at my wrists and my belt loops. The crush was overwhelming, but this was part of why I enjoyed boys their age, the propulsive intimacy they hadn’t yet learned to be ashamed of. The gang of scruffy, shirtless kids hauled me out to the lawn to play “slack ’em,” a game I’d practiced endlessly as a camper. Two competitors stand some yards apart on sawed-off stumps, holding ends of a thick Manila rope, and try to knock each other off-balance by yanking or slacking the line. One boy after another took me on; I trounced them all. They dared me to play with just one hand, and then with just my weaker hand, all the while quizzing me on my Pathfinder achievements. What animal had I trapped? How had I managed to cook it?

Then my opponent, a geeky blond with a pointillist spray of freckles on his nose, asked where I lived. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he added.

I’d planned on coming out, of course—why else was I here?—but I’d only just begun to bask in the campers’ adoration. By saying I was gay, would I blunt their love? So soon?

But no, I reminded myself: the goal was to use their adoration. To wow them with my achievements, then let my risky candor ride the coattails of their awe.

I pulled the rope, then reeled in more, forcing the kid forward, until he teetered along his stump’s front edge. “I live in Boston,” I said. “But my boyfriend? He’s in Manhattan. I can’t tell you how sick I am of going back and forth!”

Without warning, I slacked the rope; the boy flew off his stump. All of the kids around me wore expressions just like his: weightless, wide-eyed, scrambled with surprise.

• • •

Gossip travels fast at camp—a truth I’d counted on. By morning, it seemed, everyone knew I was gay. The news didn’t repel the boys; if anything, it stoked their interest.

Reid, the camper poised to earn his Pathfinder, came to see me: a pale boy with preppy hair and improbably spotless clothes. When I ticked through his skills list—killing and skinning a critter, crafting a birchbark pot in which to boil it—his lips curled with a red-blooded fervor that forged our bond.

Next, I hiked to that summer’s cabin-in-progress and grabbed a hammer. “The trick,” I told the clutch of kids who’d gathered like paparazzi, “is letting the weight of the head do all the work.” This was the sort of moment I might write about, I thought, to show how easily a counselor can inspire guileless reverence. “Don’t choke up and peck,” I said. “Hold the handle low. One and two”—I pounded a sixteen-penny nail—“and done.” The boys’ eyes glowed with a question: You can do this, but you like to kiss boys?

Or maybe I only imagined it. Kids are kids, and soon enough their attention zoomed away. They bolted off to the garden or an ultimate Frisbee game.

Except for one, who puppied me through the camp’s sheer hills all afternoon, tagging along wherever I went.

Ricky.

He was almost as tall as I, his legs elastically overlong. But there was something babyish in his face and in his affect, a soft, plaintive energy, unfledged. Later, I found out he was fourteen.

The next day, I snuck out of the lodge during announcements, hoping to avoid the post-lunch crowd. Instead of the usual sawdusted path I took a steeper, slippery trail that plummeted to the cabin area. I was watching my feet, trying not to stumble, when I heard a crack of twigs and turned. Ricky was right behind me, with his galootish grin, his jangle of reedy limbs.

“Figured you’d take the shortcut,” he said. “Pathfinder, right? Ha ha.”

“Guilty,” I said. I grabbed a sugar maple sapling for balance.

“So, I heard you live in Boston?”

“Yup. For three years now.”

“Wow,” he said. “Just wow!” He confessed that he was from a dumpy rural town. “Is Boston wicked cool?” he asked, batting his aw-shucks eyes. His voice was on the brink of changing; it echoed within a hollowness it couldn’t yet quite fill.

The camp had recently implemented a hard-and-fast new rule, that a counselor should never be alone with a camper. “Listen, I can’t talk now,” I said. “Catch me later, okay?”

I scrambled down the muddy trail and ducked into my cabin, where I lay on my bunk, wrestling with why, even without the new rule, I might have been inclined to dodge Ricky.

• • •

The prohibition against one-on-one interactions made me rethink what it meant to train a new Pathfinder. Back when I was gunning hard to get the vaunted title, my mentor and I had spent long hours in the woods, just the two of us, like followers of a secret faith. But now, mentoring Reid, I couldn’t repeat that pattern. I wanted to help him practice for his orienteering test, when he’d be driven, blindfolded, miles away from camp, then have to hike back aided by just a compass and four topographical maps. But even though Reid was the only boy who’d trained adequately, I had to recruit another kid—a pudgy, Afroed prankster—to bushwhack through the backwoods with us.

On my third day at camp, Ricky spied me at the lakeshore. I’d just emerged from the water, and the sunny air, pouring onto my taut, lake-chilled skin, tickled like a dousing of champagne. But my sodden swimsuit provided an uncomfortable reminder of how the old camp ways had been proscribed, and why.

“Mike, hey!” he called, galloping toward me. “What’re you up to?”

I was about to fib by saying I had to go find a towel, when I saw that I might appease him and solve the problem with Reid at the same time. Did he want to join our hike after lunch to the nearby moraine? We’d dig up fern roots and weave them into fishnets!

Ricky pouted. That boy-scout stuff didn’t interest him. He’d rather talk. And talk and talk and talk.

He wanted to know what I did for fun in Boston.

“Go to the movies? Or out with friends. Sometimes to a party.” I steered us toward a wooden bench where other campers and counselors sat gabbing.

“What kind of party?” he asked.

“I don’t know. A dinner party.”

“A dinner party! With what kind of people?”

The previous week, I’d gone to a rooftop fete at the home of a memoirist whom Edmund White, in a book-cover blurb, had called “the most famous piece of ass of my generation.”

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Just people.” As much as I wanted to model matter-of-factness about being gay, something about Ricky—as clingy as my swimsuit—provoked me, and I reflexively withheld.

The vaguer I got, the more intently he probed.

“You have a boyfriend?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What’s his name?”

“Scott.”

“What’s he like? Is he older than you or younger?”

Later, I would understand that Ricky, in asking that question, was really asking something about himself, but in the moment, startled, I worried he had somehow seen my weak spot and was jabbing. When friends asked about Scott’s age, I usually said that although he was three years older than I, he looked, and often acted, a decade younger. In other words, he was solidly my type; I’d always been attracted, above all, to boyishness—to bratty braggarts who strutted and preened, to the hotshots who would’ve snubbed me in high school.

Boyishness, yes. That’s true. But it’s also an artful dodge.

How could I like boyishness without sometimes being attracted to actual adolescents?

Acknowledging these attractions is easier for me now that I’m almost fifty and I know I’ll never be a counselor again. But I couldn’t have confessed them to Ricky then, or anyone else at camp. I was still nervous even to think those thoughts.

“I said, what’s he like?” Ricky asked.

“He’s . . . well, he’s a writer, like me,” I said. “He lives in New York.”

“The city that never sleeps! Gosh, I’d love to see it. Next time you go, can I stow away with you?”

I thought: Oh, poor boy, does he even know he’s gay?

And: What a relief that mostly what I feel for him is pity.

He had a youthful magnetism, and his lanky, on-the-verge-of-something body was intriguing. But his charm felt forced—the chipperness of an old Hollywood hayseed—and burned too hot for me to find him attractive. He was too needy, too ready to please. Too much of a reminder of myself at his age.

I’m chagrined to think it now, but I preferred the company of the cooler, more intrepid kids, like Reid.

The two-bell clanged its steely cue: lunch in fifteen minutes.

“Time to head to the lodge,” I said.

He nodded but didn’t get up.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, and nudged him off the bench.

• • •

In the following days, I whizzed from one activity to another, too busy even to jot notes for my novel. I pitched in at the cabin again; I huddled with Colin, mulling the camp’s future; but I spent most of my hours with Reid, and anyone else who’d join us, rushing to impart all my know-how before my week was up. We felled a spruce, adzed it into a passably squared-off beam. “Know about spruce gum?” I asked, knifing sap from the bark. “Sticky at first”—I popped the amber gob into my mouth—“but don’t give up, just keep chewing. Trust me!”

That raw, resiny tang of spruce; that hyper, hopeful chewing: I felt like the teenager I’d been when I’d first tried it, anxious, overeager to accomplish. If I could build an airtight shell of competence, that boy had thought, I could possibly keep my secret self from leaking out. How far I’d come since then . . . and yet, here I was again, sheathing myself in diligence.

Still, it felt important to pass the baton cleanly before I had to head home to Boston. I planned to return in a few weeks for the Fair, the camp’s big gala—a wacky event with comically primitive, hand-cranked carnival rides—and (I hoped) to welcome Reid into the Pathfinder kinship.

In my frenzy, I had no time for Ricky, or so I told myself. Now, I see I must have avoided him, his pushy questions. When he managed to pull me aside again—late in the afternoon of my final day—he said he wanted to talk. He needed to. Alone.

Our last encounter had left me wondering how much he knew about himself. But maybe he was readier to come out than I’d imagined; maybe I’d even helped to make him ready.

Or maybe—a steel-tipped screw of fear drilled inside my gut—maybe he’d somehow apprehended what I’d thought I’d hidden: the fact that teenage boys could turn me on. Did Ricky plan to corner me, call my bluff?

I told him we could talk for just a minute, but not alone.

His twiggy frame appeared even further whittled by fretting. A frantic sadness seemed to jolt through him in waves.

“But please, Mike,” he said. “It’s secret.”

His obvious anguish acted upon me like smelling salts, rousing me from my stupor of paranoia.

“Please,” he repeated. “You’re the only person I can tell.”

I can’t be the only man in the history of camp counseling who secretly, stupidly wanted to think that he alone might save a hurting child. And who, therefore, was susceptible to the rush of learning a child seemed to think the same of him.

I led him into the library, a small room in a building we called the Lower Lodge. At that hour, it stood empty, its air close with the must of moldy pages. We sat down amid the stacks of boy-adventure novels, near a massive, foxed copy of The Ashley Book of Knots. (A good detail, I remember thinking. Use it.)

In a jittery monologue, Ricky spoke of feeling like a stranger in his own family. He didn’t belong in his small dumb town, where everyone else was white. Camp was a little better, with so many different types, but even here, he couldn’t be himself.

Lots of people felt that way, I assured him. Especially kids his age.

But he was different, he said. He wanted things, secret things. His bird-boned shoulders started to shake, sending dismal ripples through his T-shirt. At last he said: “I think I’m gay. I’m gay.”

The admission seemed to steady him. Or maybe he found my hand on his back calming—it calmed me, too: this was just a standard coming-out scene, after all.

I felt awful for having withheld my comfort until now. So nervous about the possible unmasking of my own taboo desires, I’d pushed away the very kid who needed me the most.

He was so brave, so honest, I said. And though things must be tough—it’s hard to be ahead of the curve, I told him—his peers would soon catch up, and he’d find his own gay family. “Being gay can be great,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to be any other way.”

He fell against me, into a hug. I felt how truly slight he was, as frail and easily wisped away as dandelion fluff.

“Will I see you again?” he asked.

“Sure thing. At the Fair.”

He pulled away. “How about before that. Can I write you?”

“Always!” I said. “You can tell me anything you need to.”

I gave him my address. We hugged good-bye.

• • •

Back in Boston, I returned to my novel, hoping to capture the details of camp life: the peaty scent of shade beneath a century-old pine, the cool blue sound of swollen mountain streams. I planned to riff on Ricky, too, but wasn’t sure just how. Our interaction, intense as it was, had been too neatly resolved. For him it had represented a leap toward self-fulfillment, but still it lacked the dramatic surprise to make it worthy of fiction. Kid comes out as gay: end of story.

It’s funny now, and painful, to see how hard I worked to keep myself out of the drama. Ricky’s story had resulted in a coming out; mine hadn’t. I was too spooked to do the sloppy work of plumbing my feelings, let alone put them on the page.

Less than a week later, I got a letter. The return address said simply, “Ricky Camp.”

The stationery was touchingly childish, printed with colorful cartoon sneakers adorned with the shapes of clouds, a star, a heart. “Dear Mike,” Ricky wrote:

I would love too give you a blowjob and your boyfriend!!!! 🙂  please write to me since you are not working here tell me if you would like me to do that if I can come to your house for two weeks would you be my boyfriend?

I love you. I wish you could send me a naked picture of you please please please please I will hide it very well.

I love you.

Love,

Ricky

I stared at the page, with its jaunty cartoon shoes, its penciled plea. The paper seemed to pulse in my fist. I wanted not to be holding it, but I also wanted to keep it out of anyone else’s hands.

The whiplash of it: at once so precocious and so naïve—pornography composed in a primary-schooler’s voice. His thinking was so basic; how could he be fourteen?

And how could I have missed his desire?

Sure, I’d felt his fascination, but I’d pegged it as merely hero worship, like the other campers’ enthrallment with a Pathfinder—if, in his case, heightened because of my open gayness. But never had I suspected he’d make me his sexual fantasy.

When I was fourteen, I’d wanted to be my counselors, not to sleep with them; my crushes were all on punkish other boys. Was that why even the thought of Ricky’s lust had never struck me?

No, what seems more true to me now is that I was struck by something: not Ricky’s lust but every boy’s. (Like any other adolescent, all-male society, the camp was a steaming pot of hormones.) And so, to insulate myself against temptation, I’d done my best always to look away. I’d worked so hard to block out the boys’ sexuality that I’d not seen the lovesick kid standing right before me.

I told myself I had to handle this quietly, on my own. For one thing, I didn’t want to betray Ricky’s confidence. Also, I was fissured with fear that people might think I’d led him on. From Ricky’s point of view, maybe I had. A man guides a boy into a silent, secluded room, rubs his back, pulls him into a hug . . .

But how to reject his desire without rejecting him, without compounding his shame and self-disgust?

“Dear Ricky,” I finally typed:

I’m glad you wrote me. You’re a special person, and I was really happy that we were able to connect at camp. I told you that you could talk to me, and I meant it.

But Ricky, you have to understand that things can’t be the way you asked in your letter. I met you as a counselor—as a professional staff member at camp—and also I’m twice your age. It’s just completely inappropriate to talk about sexual stuff between us. It can’t happen. Period.

I feel bad, because I know society in general is always saying, “Don’t talk about sexuality.” Well, I’m happy to try to work through issues of sexuality with you, but not sex. Do you understand the difference? I hope that with time you’ll grow more comfortable and eventually find peers with whom you can be naturally sexual. But please don’t put either of us in an awkward position, okay? If you do, I won’t be able to keep being someone to talk to.

Being gay can be about so much—about friendship, about seeing the world with new eyes. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only about what you do with your body.

I hope you’re doing well in the second half of camp. Maybe I’ll see you at the Fair?

Take good care,

Mike

I printed an extra copy of the letter for my files. A self-protective instinct, I guess. And also, I see now, self-regarding: already I must have imagined someday showing off my rectitude, the gracious skill with which I’d steered Ricky. (Or did I keep a copy because I doubted my own rectitude, and wanted a clear reminder of the proper course of action, in case my self-control ever wavered?)

I didn’t hear back from him. Whether this was a good sign or bad, I couldn’t decide.

• • •

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the Fair. I could have easily made excuses, but the truth—that what would keep me away was sheepish, furtive worry—reminded me of being in the closet. Two weeks later, I drove to camp again.

The Fair was a distillation of everything I loved about the place: silly and moving, the whole production—from the dunk tank to the gamy root beer—militantly homemade. Hundreds of family members and alumni made the pilgrimage for skits, a square dance, and a teepee raising, all capped off with a bonfire. For much of the trip from Boston, fog fuzzed the road, but just as I parked at camp, the sun scythed through the mist. When I climbed the hill at the edge of the fairgrounds, I could hear the happy racket of clanking rides below, where herds of campers dashed from booth to booth. The fields smelled of their recent haying, crisp and bright and wholesome.

I gazed around for Ricky, half expecting him already at my hip, but didn’t see him. Maybe he was working at his cabin’s concession, the Aquashoot, a rickety, one-track flume that plunged riders, for all of two seconds, downhill to the lake. I’d planned to find him right away, but now that seemed imprudent. If I appeared too eager to see him, he might get the wrong idea.

A camper—the freckled boy I’d sent flying in slack ’em way back on that first afternoon—saw me and demanded a high-speed piggyback ride to nowhere. After that, another kid yanked me toward his cabin’s booth. (“You have to try our chicken kabobs. We slaughtered the hens ourselves!”) I kept bumping into old friends. In the “real world,” I’m sure these pals poked fun at the camp—my “crunchy-granola nudist camp” was one of my comic go-tos (or had been, until the abuse scandal)—but back here on the fairgrounds, the site of our childhood bonding, we smothered each other with unironic hugs. Our subtext: The camp is fine, right? Everything will be fine?

Eventually someone persuaded me to ride the Ferris wheel, a twenty-foot-tall diamond-shaped wooden contraption with just four seats, spun by boys perched on a wobbly scaffold. When the boys saw me, they doubled their crew, the notion being to haze me by turning the wheel so madly that, whether I liked it or not, my chair would somersault. It worked: I flipped and flipped again, the universe a bluish blur of raucous, Dopplered laughter.

At last they stopped, and I staggered off, my balance all atilt. There, in my shaky shadow, stood Ricky.

His young brown face glowed bashfully, his eyes as smooth as worry beads; he looked like an ideogram for remorse. My own remorse gored me then, for having avoided him today—and all the times before—for being so consumed by my own self-censure that I had dug a deep moat between us.

I’d planned a professional greeting, kindly but standoffish, but here he was, so contrite, so clearly jazzed to see me, and I forgot my duty not to confuse him. I only wanted to crush him with compassion.

When I hugged him, he pinned his face hard against my chest, so I could barely hear him confess, “I missed you.”

“Missed you too,” I said.

Staying close, he whispered, “Can we go somewhere . . . private?”

His stealthy tone snapped me back to responsibility. “Ricky, can’t we just”—I glanced around—“enjoy the Fair?”

“Fine,” he huffed. “Fine, then. Forget it.” He sprinted off.

Before I could react—how would it look if I chased him?—Reid appeared before me, his parents at his sides. Their hair was preppy, just like his; they were as straitlaced as their matching khaki shorts. “This is Mike, the Pathfinder,” he said. “The guy who taught me everything.”

“Ah,” said his father, pumping my hand. “The famous Pathfinder, at last!” He cracked a joke about the thousands of bucks in tuition they’d blown to have their son deprived of food and safety.

“No, but seriously,” his mother added, “you’ve given him something priceless. You’re obviously an extraordinary mentor.”

As they loaded me up with plaudits, fraudulence crackled through my bones, as if, under their next ounce of praise, I might fracture. Sure, I’d helped their son, but he was an easy pupil. If I told them about Ricky, would they still see me as such a standout leader? I scanned the grounds for his thin, wayward form.

The afternoon was waning; concessions started closing. Reid’s parents excused themselves to buy some hand-dipped candles, and I knelt down in a patch of sunlight, breathing in the crowd’s kicked-up dust.

After the booths were shut, everyone gathered to watch the teepee raising, a ritual that in retrospect seems comically humorless. A scowling youth in a green felt loincloth beat a rustic drum, while other boys self-importantly lifted long wood shafts. One of the kids monkey-climbed to the top and tied the poles. The crowd applauded, and that was when I glimpsed Ricky, across from me, clapping along but looking in my direction. I turned away, pretending not to see.

The crowd moved across the road, to the pile of logs and lumber scraps whose burning would provide the Fair’s climax. The sun had set, and the middle-of-nowhere darkness was starting to thicken, the wooded hills a spooky charcoal smudge. The oldest boys, tasked with overseeing the fire, donned hard hats. Some shouldered galvanized water tanks, the kind used for fighting forest fires. Others lighted toilet-paper torches soaked in kerosene, the flames trembling against the muddy sky.

Someone speechified about the camp’s enduring mission, the kindling of every child’s “inner light”—had he meant to use such an on-the-nose cliché?—and then the fire-starters got the nod. Somberly they strode up to the edge of the huge heap, hurled their torches, and wildly scampered back.

Whump! A massive fist of flames punched a hole in the darkness. Just then I felt a hand slip something into my pocket, and turned to see Ricky running off into the shadows.

I opened the pages he’d given me, but the light was too dim to read by. I stepped up, then stepped again, as close to the fire as I could bear, the heat snapping at my nose and chin.

Mike would you have sex with me if I was not at camp? I was thinking that if there is a place at camp I would like to talk to you when you are horny. I will let you touch my body at the fair.

I saw your letter and I was mad. I love you I love my dick is getting big can you please have sex with me.

Love,

Ricky

I looked over my shoulder but the blaze had messed with my vision; all I saw were dull shapes in the distance. Was Ricky out there, watching? Could he somehow sense the awful, stirring throb within my veins?

Parents and kids were crowded close around me on all sides. I knew I should pocket the letters for later, but I couldn’t help myself. I kept reading.

The next page was a mishmash of disconnected scribbles: “Mike can I come to your house for a week and sleep with you please I would tell my mom that I would like you to help me.” “Would you like to see my dick?” In one spot, in big letters, he’d written, “The Joy of Sex with gay friends,” but just below that: “I hate myself because I’m gay.” Throughout the page, front and back, were crude stick-figure sketches of guys engaged in oral and anal sex. In each, the figures were labeled “me” and “you.”

A boy raced past, knocking my elbow; I nearly dropped the pages. “Quick!” he called to another rushing boy. “We’ve gotta stop it!”

I looked up to see a flame climbing a tuft of grass. To my left, a wheaty patch of brush started smoking. How shocking the world could be, I thought, in offering up its metaphors, and just then: ha! The bonfire roared with sparks.

A mother scooped up her toddler. Campers backed away. But the tank crew, nozzles gripped like automatic rifles, marched with red-faced grimness toward the hot spots. They sprayed the flames, pumping until the errant fires were quenched.

• • •

I’d like to say I jogged to my car and hightailed it back to Boston. But one boy started to pluck a banjo, and another strummed a guitar, and before I knew it I had gotten sucked into a sing-along with the campers whose attachment to me I was so attached to. We sat by the fire, crooning the goofy, earnest tunes I loved. By the time we quit, way past the normal camp bedtime, all the free bunks were spoken for. I made my way to the Lower Lodge and crawled into my sleeping bag on the bare wood floor, just outside the library, where I lay for I don’t know how long, thinking of Ricky’s crazy, compelling sketches.

I’d been holding on to the hope that he would get beyond his crush when he recognized how out of line it was. But now I saw how deep ran his trouble. Who knew what he might do next if my brush-off rankled him? Even to be seen with him now could be a liability, if later he claimed I’d done something wrong. Worse yet, to be with him and unseen. The rule against counselors being one-on-one with campers was as much for our protection as for theirs. I’d known this in theory; now it banged all through me.

But what about the camp’s protection? And Colin, who’d battled to bring it back from disgrace—how could I tell him?

I got up early and left before breakfast.

• • •

By the time I spoke with Colin, a day or two later, I was in Manhattan, for a publisher’s meeting about an anthology I’d been hired to edit. The book would be a sort of “state of the gay community” collection, immodestly titled Gay Men at the Millennium. I couldn’t shake the irony of the timing. Here I was, curating the forefront of gay discourse, just as I was caught up in the oldest of gay predicaments: the fear of being accused of corrupting a young boy.

Reviewing Ricky’s new pages to prep for talking to Colin, I found he’d covered the back of one with writing. Much of it repeated what he’d said on the other side, but one passage revealed something new: “My Mom had a boyfriend at camp, and she was 13 and he was 29. Age does not matter in this he was on camp staff.” I could see that at first he’d written the ages as fourteen and twenty-eight—precisely our own ages—but he’d crossed them out and changed each by a year. Why, to make his lie just slightly less laughable?

Looped around the margins were further scribblings: “I can’t be gay.” “Sorry I’m not like you.” “It’s not working out being gay so I’m going to stop thinking about men.”

He’d signed the main letter, “Hate, Ricky the gay.” But “hate” was scratched out, replaced by “from.”

I’d decided the best course was to show Colin all of Ricky’s and my correspondence. We set a time to talk, and then, using my publisher’s fax machine (an emergency, I explained; my honor was on the line), I beamed Ricky’s letters back to camp.

I took Colin’s call in an editorial intern’s bare cubicle. He grilled me with the necessary discomposing questions about what I’d done, and not done, with Ricky or other boys. I answered everything, relieved that my responses were both honest and correct. But we spoke only of actions; I volunteered nothing about harboring erotic thoughts of certain campers. The omission felt false—it made my tongue taste tinny—and sometimes I still wonder if I should have revealed more.

As soon as Colin was satisfied that Ricky had not been harmed—that he was the pursuer, and I’d rebuffed his pleas for sex—we started to consider our next move. How could we protect the camp’s reputation, and mine, without putting Ricky in any peril? We thought of sending him home, but the season was already almost over, and what was his crime? Unrequited passion? We’d have to give his parents a reason, and outing him could be ruinous—for him, of course, but also for the camp. What if his parents doubted us and launched an investigation? What lies might Ricky concoct to save face? Even if we were exonerated, the process would be harrowing; the camp might not survive a second round of sexual scandal.

Colin suggested a plan that seemed like the least awful of our options. He would talk with Ricky, compassionately but sternly, and say that if he contacted me again in any way, the camp would have to tell his parents about his disobedience—the details of which would unavoidably disclose his sexuality.

As Colin proposed his plan, I stared at the sterile cubicle wall, behind which someone was carping about a writer’s broken deadline. I hated to wield a threat, especially one depending on Ricky’s shame at being gay. I still wanted to be his savior, to free him from that shame, but I had my own species of stigma to contend with, and now, given the need for our imposed separation, I was the person least able to help him.

• • •

Colin’s talk with Ricky seemed to go all right. Ricky agreed to leave me alone. We’d all keep our silence.

The worst having been averted, the sense of crisis burned off, but my sadness and agitation only grew hotter, and my imagination came to a sudden boil. I saw a novel—a better novel—steaming into shape. The story would still involve abuse, but featuring two key counselors: one accused of molesting a boy, and another who resists his attraction to the same boy. To complicate things, the camper would be precociously seductive, and smitten with the man who’s determined to resist him. Scenes unspooled in my mind as fast as I could type.

It felt a little sickening to be pumped so full of creative thrill, knowing that while a fictional boy took flight within my thoughts, the real kid who’d inspired the character was back at home, shackled in his closet of self-loathing. But I clung to a notion that now seems all too self-serving: that my made-up boy was a way of offering Ricky room to roam.

• • •

I could invent a trigger to explain why, fifteen years after my novel was published, I finally decided to Google Ricky: a wince-inducing news account of an iffy coach or priest; the want me? smirk of a gangly teen (or was his smile just cordial?) who skateboarded past me on the street. But the truth is there was no one reason Ricky returned to my mind. Which is to say, he’d never really left it.

The novel had turned out pretty much the way I’d envisioned it in the fever of my first creative burst. The narrator was the counselor who, perceiving his problematic desires, removes himself from the boy who adores him. When the book came out, I had dreaded my camp friends’ reactions, fearing they would recognize me in the narrator and shun me. But the few who read it and told me so praised the book’s compassion, assuming it was purely an act of empathetic imagining and nothing even close to a confession. As far as I know, Colin never read it.

To enter the narrator’s point of view, I’d mined my own feelings, and so his fate (my fate) felt relatively settled, especially as far as never crossing a sexual line with campers. (I lived a mostly steady life, all these years later still together with Scott.) But I knew nothing of Ricky’s fate; he had never had the chance to convey his side of things. That was the thought—or what I let myself believe it was—that sent me to Google and on the path toward writing this account. What if I located Ricky and reported a journalistic piece, revealing the actual facts of his life’s drama? With so much time elapsed and the dangers long dispersed, I could release the real Ricky and tell his story, using his real voice.

Maybe it seems obvious that in seeking Ricky’s point of view, I should have thought more keenly about . . . well, his point of view. I should have considered the repercussions for him. But my excitement, which I chalked up to the hope of writing an edgy, top-notch piece, drowned out my fainter reservations. Then, when I so quickly found Ricky’s newscast video, I took it as a license-giving sign: if he’d been willing to talk on TV about being gay-bashed, I doubted he’d have qualms about letting me profile him. As hard to watch as the video was (his split lip; his sad, unsubstantiated claims), it amplified my urge to track him down. The altercation and its ambiguity, I couldn’t help but think, would add a riveting angle to the story.

Next, I found his contact info, or what had been his info. The email address was now defunct, but by searching for variations of it I came upon his profile on a hookup site called SugarDaddyForMe. He’d made the profile in his late twenties; it hadn’t been updated. He described himself as a lover of travel, aiming to find a career in the health-care profession but currently working with underprivileged kids. He listed himself as a “sugar baby,” with a goal of dating a gay daddy between the ages of twenty-seven and ninety.

The details in that profile led easily to another, on a different site, from five years earlier. Much of that bio was taken up with describing cherished pets. He wrote that authenticity meant more to him than religious beliefs or “things you might’ve done that you’re not proud of.” He looked for someone bighearted in a partner.

There were two photos. One, a close-up glamour shot, depicted him lying down, tipping a brightly sunlit panama hat; his black tank top appeared to say hustler. In the second pic, he stood provocatively wide-legged on a poolside deck, aiming a sizzling stare into the lens. He wore a skimpy swimsuit, shockingly white against his skin, his body smooth and sculptural and lean. One hand splayed on his stomach, the other pushed the suit down to within a millimeter of indecent, revealing the shaved-bare patch above his cock.

It’s no use trying to squirm away from what I felt: if I’d been cruising the site and I saw a stranger who looked like Ricky, undoubtedly I’d have tried to pick him up. Gone was the clingy fawner I’d known, replaced by this brazen-faced stud. But it was more than Ricky’s physique and his nerve that turned me on. I’d been aroused—I finally had to admit it to myself—since the instant I’d thought to look him up.

I’d spent my life tamping down desire for too-young guys, and though I knew that certain boys—like Ricky—had fallen for me, I could never—would never—act on that attraction. But now that Ricky was all grown up, I might have the chance to feel the force of his lust uncuffed—the closest I would ever come to the thrill of the forbidden.

Say I got in touch with him and told him my idea: that I could visit and interview him and use his voice in my story. And say that after I recorded him (out on his poolside deck?), after I pressed stop and removed my writer’s hat . . . Say that then he gazed at me, the old burn in his eyes, and we did all the things he asked for twenty years ago. I could be Daddy and he could be Boy: safely, now, as role-play, but still a potent, taboo-busting smash.

But what I just said, about taking off my writer’s hat? I know there must be writers who possess that ability, who don’t, in every moment, imagine how their life’s scenes would play on the page. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. Even just in picturing our reunion, I was gauging the effect each possible outcome might have on the narrative’s ending, and my self-consciousness chipped away at the pleasures I’d fantasized.

Most of the how-to guides to writing say that a story, to satisfy, should offer a payoff inevitable but surprising. What if Ricky came on to me, now that he freely could, and, again, definitively, I denied him? (“It’s not that you’re not hot,” I’d say. “If you were anyone else . . .”) A surprise not of release but of continuing resistance, of old wounds salved not by touch but by an affirmation that not to touch had been more than a necessity: a kindness.

Or what if—in a big reversal—I came on to him? What if I tried, and Ricky turned me down? Would that be a more empowering outcome to his story?

• • •

None of these possible endings would matter unless I managed to find him.

Beyond his two dating profiles, the internet trail ran cold; I could find no trace of him more current than 2012. Maybe he’d moved his hunt for love to the popular mobile hookup apps that aren’t typically searchable on the web and that I, as a smartphone holdout, didn’t have access to. Or maybe at last he’d found his bighearted daddy and stopped looking.

But one of his profiles, I realized, mentioned his parents’ jobs. With that information and their town’s name, I was able to search for them, and soon I found his father’s obituary. This led me to his mother and her active Facebook page, the most recent post only a few days old.

Bingo! I could ask her to pass a letter on to Ricky.

Affecting a laid-back tone (“A long-lost friend from summer camp!”), I drafted a note and almost clicked send. But then I saw the “About” button, and paused.

I’d like to say I paused for reasons that might seem self-evident: that blindsiding Ricky might reopen his thinly healed scars; that I deserved no free pass now to take advantage of him, just because I’d resisted doing so all those years ago. In truth, I can’t say why I paused. My doubts, if I had them, weren’t conscious.

I clicked “About,” and there, among Ricky’s mother’s details—her hometown, her high-school alma mater—was her birth date. When I read the year, I exclaimed, to an empty room, “Really?”

I searched back for his father’s obit to double-check my math, and yes, some quick subtraction confirmed it: Ricky’s mother had been younger than her husband by almost twenty years.

Could Ricky have been telling the truth when he claimed his mother, at thirteen and attending summer camp, had had a boyfriend more than twice her age? Could that man have become Ricky’s father? When Ricky, in his letter to me, had noted the age gap as sixteen years, maybe he’d actually lowballed the figure.

All this time, I’d thought of him as the troubled, manipulative one of us. I assumed he’d relish the chance to ask for absolution, now that surely he understood the risk he’d put me in. But suddenly, the flimsy walls I’d built around the truth began to crumble. Hadn’t his troubles arisen more than anything else from his candor, his inability to disguise his desires? I was the one who’d not been honest—to him, or Colin, or even myself. I was forced to confront the thought that it was Iwho needed him, in order to come clean about my yearnings for younger guys, and how my shame and silence had warped our interactions. Belatedly, I wanted to say I was sorry.

• • •

That night I lay adrift in bed, queasy, chasing sleep. Eventually, I gave up. I opened my computer.

I stared for long minutes at the picture of Ricky poolside, his suit tugged down, the sizzle in his eyes. I still wanted so badly to think that he could handle hearing from me, that he might even crave it as much as I did. I started Googling again, using every research trick I knew. I was hoping for some fresh sign, permission to bridge our distance.

Finally, after a particularly inventive tweak of my search terms, I found another breadcrumb: a one-line review Ricky had posted on a popular cooking site. It was just a trifling phrase about a casserole; at first, I paid it little attention. The more I thought about it, though, the more its very irrelevance compelled me: here was a glimpse of Ricky going about his normal business. Finding a recipe, baking it. His business.

Until now, uncannily, everything I’d learned of him had fit neatly into the story I thought I wanted to tell myself, a story about his sexuality. But that was my obsession, not his. He deserved to live his life unmolested by my preoccupation.

• • •

Should I not have written this, then? Even with the pains I’ve taken to hide Ricky’s identity? Maybe not. Probably not. Probably I’m still guilty of using him.

But I’ve spent so many years silencing my longings, keeping my hands chastely to myself. If I can never do as I want in real life with Ricky—or with any other boy I’ve fallen for—can’t I at least allow myself to have my way on the page?

• • •

These days, when I think of him, I try not to picture the pained and guilty kid at camp, hollow with longing, scrawling on a notepad, “I can’t be gay.” Likewise, I try not to see him in his swimsuit, beckoning an elusive dreamed-up daddy. (I try not to, but sometimes, still, I do.) Instead, when I’m at my best, I place him in a kitchen . . . I’m not sure where. A snug farmhouse, back in the dumpy town he ached to flee? A sooty walk-up apartment in the bowels of New York? Does he cook for two, sharing his meals with someone who loves or irks him? For all I know, he’s cheerfully alone. Or miserably so.

The timer dings. He opens the oven, removes the casserole—its edges crisp, on the verge of charred—a slightly gourmet macaroni and cheese. He spoons some out, cools it with his breath, takes a bite (there’s the mustard: half a teaspoon that tarts the whole thing up). He sounds not unsurprised as he speaks the words that later he’ll type on the cooking site, posting his review: I must say this was mighty good.

• • •

And me? Where do I place myself? What’s the scene I haunt? A late-summer bonfire of logs and lumber scraps. Sparks spuming around me in a muddy, mixed-up sky. A boy’s fantasies slipped into my pocket.

The flames tease, they give and take. Can’t quite see what’s in my hands.

Step up into the snapping heat. Closer, closer.

Stop. Don’t get burned.


[*] Like Ricky’s, some names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

About the Author

Michael Lowenthal

Michael Lowenthal has published four novels—The Same Embrace, Avoidance, Charity Girl, and The Paternity Test—and a story collection, Sex with Strangers. His shorter work has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, the New York Times Magazine, Guernica, and The Southern Review.

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