by David Bersell
I was 15 and it was the last week of summer, so I joined my teammates two hours north at Camp Foss, a co-ed running camp. The rest of the season, Foss was a girls camp, at the end of a mile-long dirt road, overlooking a pond at the bottom of New Hampshire’s lakes region.
Each morning I woke early and eased the cabin’s screen door shut, running my first three miles of the day alone when the air looked gray between the trees. I flowed over the dirt road, golden clay crumbling at its edges. My bare legs felt like they were cutting through the air, new in its coolness. I gazed into the deep woods, the fern and ivy and splintered birch, and questioned which animals slept in the dark, how it could be so much colder here, if the cold came from the mountains, if the mist came from the lake.
My teammates and I didn’t shower, didn’t shave. On day three, Anderson realized he hadn’t brushed his teeth yet. We said, “Fuck.” We said, “Twat.” We didn’t call our mothers. We ran in packs with our shirts off, with the rhythm of the girls in front of us. We watched the backs of sports bras dry in slow motion. After, we continued straight to the pond, peeled off our shoes and socks, and leaped into the cold. Our limbs looked like angled tall grass extending from the water. Webber said, “If a girl looks beautiful running, she will be beautiful forever.” I felt my legs relax and my insides churn to heat my shivering body.
Camp was a haze, where exhaustion felt natural as sunlight.
Between runs, we listened to presentations by college coaches and Olympic champions. I wanted to be great. We flirted with female campers from any school that wasn’t our own. I wanted to be great.
The girls cabins circled the baseball field, with a stretch of woods separating them from us. With an hour of free time each night before lights out, we grabbed flashlights from our cabin and followed trails through the woods like the steps had been ingrained deep in the muscles of our legs. I could only see a few feet ahead as I moved, but learned how to sense roots and rocks beneath me. The girls said that from the field, we looked like fireflies, ghosts.
We carried acoustic guitars as conversation starters. The girls sat at picnic tables in front of their cabins, waiting. We recycled stories from home. They laughed, with us or at us, or pretended to. In the dark, I felt warmth radiating from skin next to me. I drank water constantly, was always thirsty.
Erin was two years older than I was and lived in Rhode Island. After she introduced herself, she said she was rich.
She said, “My dad invented a kind of tape used to fix airplanes.”
She said, “On my birthday, my friends got a limo and we rode it to New York City to go shopping.”
She said, “I like vodka.”
This was all glamorous to me. I had no adventures of my own, so I told her my favorite camp story: The year before, our counselor, George Rose, didn’t show up until the middle of the second night. He was unshaven with a sleeping bag tucked under his pointy elbow. He looked homeless standing in the middle of the cabin, surveying us all. The older guys heard that George had fallen in love with one of the camp’s Russian lunch ladies the previous summer, even though the two didn’t share a language. George had just flown to Russia with only her name, because he couldn’t live without her. And he found her. But apparently things didn’t work out. In our cabin he introduced himself, unrolled his sleeping bag on the floor, under one of the open bunks, and fell asleep before we turned off the lights.
At the table, another day, talking to Erin, a bee flew into my mouth and stung my lower lip before I could spit it out.
Should I have taken my lip, inflated with venom, as a symbol?
Maybe I should have paid more attention that afternoon, stumbling around the cabin in my boxers, Benadryl-high and alone, singing along to the 80s-mix CD, and later, when Erin and Grandstaff brought me a plate of lukewarm spaghetti. (She sat next to me in my bunk, only cotton between my body and hers.)
At night, Erin’s hair looked flat and black and slick like a limousine. She kissed me.
She kissed Grandstaff the same night.
On the last day Erin and I ran seven miles in silence and then stretched on the shore of the pond, legs sinking into wet sand. I felt like I could sleep for the rest of my life. Sitting across from me, she was saying something, something about home, and then she said, “I don’t know why I always date guys who hit me.” I looked down, saw the white insides of her thighs, raw razor burn, dark hair I wasn’t supposed to see. I looked away.
Earlier in the week my team and I carried our limp plastic mattresses to the baseball field. We lay down and let the sun paint our chests in a single broad stroke. When we grew bored, numb, melting, we devised a game of riding the mattresses down the wooded hill next to the field. A driver sat on the mattress and the rest of us pulled it towards the field’s edge and flung it down the incline. Girls joined, taking turns onboard, light as sparrows. We grabbed the mattresses beneath their bodies and sprinted, faster, faster, and released. We watched them dart through the trees with the sunlight, and after their images disappeared, stood listening to their voices.
David Bersell is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire. His essays have appeared on The Good Men Project, Carry On, and Barnstorm, where he writes the biweekly column “Nonfiction Pizza Party.”