An excerpt from
What it Was Like
I saw her several times more before I actually spoke to her. It wasn’t a question of my not having the courage to go up and speak to her – well, it was that – but it was mainly that there was no opportunity. I saw her twice a day, at morning and evening line-up around the flagpole, in those first couple of days. She looked as if she were in her own perfect little world, standing quietly with two or three adoring girls around her. Once I saw her at the pay phone outside the main office, twirling the phone cord around and around her forearm as she talked intensely to someone on the other end. I looked at her, and I think she looked at me, but we didn’t really meet until the fourth night. I suppose that I could have just walked up to her at any time and struck up a conversation like a normal person, but that’s not me.
The first time we talked – the very first time – it was the night of the fourth day, and the Doggies, along with the rest of the Inter Boys, had their first evening activity with just the Inter Girls: square dancing. Now this was a pretty hardcore sissy, squirm-inducing activity for a bunch of nine, ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old boys. But it was the first real icebreaker with the Inter Girls, something that had to be done sometime.
So Stewie and I herded the Doggies – all of us dressed like “cowboys” or as close as we could come – to the upstairs of the rec hall, all the way fighting their reluctance to do anything that combined girls and dancing. But I have to hand it to Jerry or the Marshaks or whoever at Mooncliff found these square dance people: they had this old geezer (I guess that’s redundant, but he was so old, redundancy in this case is simply the correct emphasis) named Pecos Pete, and he called one helluva square dance.
“Honor your partner! … Honor your corner!” Pete’s charming, rinky-dink combo of bass, banjo, guitar, and kazoo/apple-cider-jug/washboard/spoons/Adam’s apple, played by what must have been his family (the whole bunch looked like the Joad family, but with sequins), got even the shyest kids up and dancing. Oh, sure, some of the kids were goofy, but the music eventually worked its honky-tonk magic. We circled-right and circled-left; we dosey-doed. I’m not the greatest dancer, but this I could do.
I don’t remember exactly what songs they played, trying to “dance” and keep my kids in line. But the one thing I do distinctly remember was catching glances of Rachel, all night, as she danced.
How she danced! She was two squares away from my square, but as I circled-right and circled-left, as I allemanded-left and allemanded-right, I could see her, dark hair flying, her eyes sparkling, her graceful hands reaching out to help the little kids in her group or whipping them around the square, their feet barely touching the floor. She was having such fun, that it made me have more fun. The drive and good humor in the music, the dancing, and the general tone of just-barely-controlled confusion (kids giggling, beaming, sweating) made the night fly by. Swing by, really.
The square dance ended in a big, yahoo circle, and the boys who until recently couldn’t stomach the thought of dancing or even holding some girl’s hand for more than a second had to be dragged out of the rec hall bodily.
Coming out of the wide back doors into the night air, herding my sweaty Doggies, is when I literally ran into Rachel … well, almost. This was the first actual moment of contact, under the pool of floodlight, right outside the doors. She, stumbling over her girls; me, counting my kids, struggling still to recall their names, and tangle-footed, too. And then, there we were, face to face.
She smiled at me. There was a slight pause in the Universe.
I said, “It’s hot.”
She said, “It’s summer,” looking me right in the eyes. Her eyes were very blue. Blueblue. Right then … right then, I felt that something was going to happen between us. I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew it was going to be something … significant.
The path back to the bunks from the rec hall divided – boys’ campus, one way; girls’ campus, the other way – but for a while, before the split at the big baseball backstop, girls and boys could walk together. That’s where the older campers, the boyfriends and girlfriends, could get one last kiss before being separated.
So Rachel and I, with the other counselors, walked the kids back down the path toward the big backstop, all together. This is when we talked for the first time, introducing ourselves carefully. At least, I was being careful.
“You’re new,” she said. That was a good sign; it meant that she had noticed me.
I didn’t say anything. (Did I freeze, or was I just being smarter than usual by not being me?)
“You’ll like it here,” she added, with an easy certainty in her voice.
“I believe you,” I said, not sure if she was being sincere or condescending.
We walked for a moment in tantalizing silence.
“I’ve been coming here, to the Moon-shak, forever,” she said.
“I didn’t see you at Orientation,” I said, feeling what it was like to walk next to her. I was just tall enough for her.
”They made me come up with the campers. In the buses,” she said, reliving the unpleasant memory. “But at least I’m a C.I.T. now – finally.”
“So now you get the best of both worlds.”
“Or the worst: my curfew is an hour earlier than you counselors, and I can’t go off-campus.”
“Oh, that’s not so bad. I’m sure you’ll find a way around that.”
Which made her laugh, once. Good. That was a start. The laugh, and a look. As we walked and talked, I was listening not only to her words but also to the sound of her voice. Her voice was musical, the way she ran her words together or lingered over individual syllables. She “played” her voice: quick to laugh, quick to darken, one moment celebrating the smallest thing, and the next, condemning something or someone else with surprising, throaty ferocity. She had this insolent, confident manner, so relaxed about her beauty that as she walked next to me, talking to me, I felt myself being drawn in.
“I like my girls, the girls this age,” she said. “They’re very honest and pure, before all this teenage drama begins.”
“You don’t like teenage drama?” I asked.
“Only my own,” she said. Which made me laugh.
“But this is definitely my last year here,” she went on, “so I want to try to be a good counselor.”
“Why is it your last year?” I asked.
“It just is,” she said, with a simple finality that made me ask nothing further. At least, for now.
“They put me in with Sara Molloy,” she went on, “who is a very good counselor. They call her Serious Sara, but I like her anyway.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re going to be a very good counselor, too,” I said.
“How would you know?” she shot back to me.
I was a little stung by her sharp response but didn’t show it. I liked how she talked, her quick words and her sly smiles, how she didn’t simply accept my cliché of a compliment. I liked how she was playing with me.
“I just have this feeling,” I said, completely casual.
She smiled when I said that.
“I saw the way you danced back there,” I said, “tossing those kids around like rag dolls.”
“I’m very strong,” she smiled and said, “… for a girl.”
“I bet you are,” I answered right back, trying to keep looking in her eyes and not down her to her upper arms and the rest of her body.
With a twist of her mouth, she was about to say something flirtatious (I think) when Leonore, standing guard at the big backstop, stopped us all cold.
“OK, boys!! Back to boys’ campus – nowwwww!” announced Leonore. “Girls – you know where to go!”
Rachel moved away from me, gathering her campers, “OK, Bunk 8 – you heard Leonore!”
I had to say something to her before she got away.
“So, that was fun,” I said, indicating the rec hall and the square dancing.
She paused, turned on me, and purred, “I approve of any activity where you honor your partner.”
The formality of her diction and the direct way she looked at me stood me still for a moment. I laughed, and she liked that I laughed. Then she turned with a smile, knowing that she had almost certainly conquered another male heart.