Okay, so, it was like this: Ben had like, kissed people before, if by “people” you meant “Susie,” and “kissed” you meant, like, “kind of touched lips a couple of times last summer, like only a little bit, trying to figure out whether it was better to close his eyes and imagine somebody else or keep them wide open to stare at her very close-up pores.” That was a lot more than most people at camp, he was pretty sure. Like, okay, there was Andy and Katie, who made out a lot, separately and now together—and Neil had a girlfriend, but she had only ever came once and now was gone again, so nobody was sure whether she was even really his girlfriend, or just his cousin in disguise. And okay—Victor had slept with a lot of girls, obviously, but J.J. and Gary hadn’t, probably. Right? Ben would definitely not make out with them, if he were a girl, which he was not. But girls were a mystery. For instance, he had overheard Abby say something about how weird-looking McKinley was this morning, and had let out such a strange noise that Coop had asked him if he needed the Heimlich maneuver. Since obviously McKinley was the most attractive person at the camp bar none, on a purely objective scale, Ben was open to the possibility that girls had different eyes, or something. He hadn’t really worked out his theory yet, but it was getting there.
Anyway, he obviously knew all about kissing, and like, definitely romance also; he and Susie had dated for a whole year, even though that had mostly meant her talking at him on the phone once a month while his mom yelled at him about the long-distance bill. And also sending him letters with detailed plans for what they were going to do with the campers that summer. “Why do you let that girl boss you around like that?” his mother always asked after these phone calls, blowing smoke into his face, despite the fact that actually Susie wasn’t making him do anything, since they lived in different states, and never saw each other; he was just talking to her on the phone. “You gotta stand up for yourself,” his mom liked to tell him. “You gotta not be a pushover. Before you know it your life will be in the rearview mirror. Your whole goddamn life. And you’ll be spending too much money on shitty foundation and sticking your sagging tits into old bras because you can’t afford new ones because your husband fucking shot himself.”
“Okay,” Ben usually said in response to this unsettlingly consistent monologue, and retreated to his room.
So really the only thing left to figure out was sex. Probably.
“Hey,” McKinley said at lunch the day after the government almost destroyed the camp and killed them all, grinning as he sat down.
“Hey,” Ben said.
“Hey,” McKinley said.
They both grinned.
“So,” McKinley said, poking at whatever the fuck Gene had come up with to feed them, which as far as Ben was concerned was as likely to kill them as whatever the hell had been out in the woods, which nobody had exactly explained but which as far as he knew was a toxic waste product the government had been disposing of on camp property as a result of the now-dead ex-camp director Mitch selling the camp out because of his personal debts. Or something, Ben couldn’t be sure. Probably it was all just rumors, except for the fact that the president had shown up last night in a tank, which had kind of interrupted the romantic evening that he had envisioned, though that was probably a selfish line of thought.
“So,” he said, after McKinley started looking at him weird.
“We should, you know,” McKinley said. “Go somewhere later.”
“Like where?” Ben asked, blinking. McKinley stared.
“Um,” he said. “Like… the woods… or… the other side of the lake… like… not… here?”
“Oh,” Ben said. “Right. Yeah. That sounds awesome.”
“Cool,” McKinley said, grinning.
“Yeah,” Ben said, staring as he stuck a sort of brown-colored green bean into his mouth and chewed it noisily. He swallowed.
“Food still sucks,” McKinley said ruminatively. Ben realized he didn’t know his first name, which was unfortunate, since he was in love with him.
“Where are you going?” Susie asked later that afternoon, when the theater kids had finally been set free and were scampering toward the campground. Ben had been edging out after them, and now felt caught, like a kid sneaking out at night, or at least like he imagined he would feel in that situation, having never actually snuck out of anywhere, let alone his house.
“Oh,” he said. “You know. Out.”
“We have work to do,” she said. “We have important plans.”
“Well,” he said. “That’s. I’m gonna. I’m gonna go, though. Out.”
She stared at him, incredulous, and then her eyes scrunched together, which was her Calculating face. He recognized it. It was familiar.
“You,” she said, “are going to go—make time—with—McKinley.”
“Do people still say that?” he asked. “Even in the eighties?”
“Ben,” she said. “I think I’ve been very understanding. Since we both—transgressed—I’ve decided not to resent you and your newfound happiness. But I simply cannot let it stand in the way of everything that we have dreamed of and worked toward achieving at Camp Firewood this summer. I will not tolerate an ounce of—of—of laziness from you,” she said, voice dropping. “You will be as committed as ever.”
Ben’s gut instinct was to cower, possibly bodily, and assure her that he completely agreed, and would do whatever she said, for the rest of his life if necessary; he was used to going through this charade with his mother on a routine basis and had gotten very good at it, chiefly through not actually pretending. But unfortunately for Susie, today she was up against something other than resentment, or misery, or dreams of a better life. She was up against his libido.
“Yes,” he said. “Of course. I completely agree with everything you just said. But also, I’m going to go make out with Ben in the woods now.”
She turned so red he thought maybe she might just explode, like their head counselor had last year—poor Jacob, never to be forgotten, or maybe actually to be forgotten quite quickly—so he turned and headed for the hills, without even stopping to apologize to a camper whom he toppled off of a tree stump and possibly knocked unconscious. The kid would probably be all right, anyway. Or if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t exactly be able to name names.
McKinley was already in the woods by the time Ben arrived to the very specific but also unremarkable location they had chosen deep into the forest, where nobody would ever find them. He was leaning against a tree and the sun was falling down on his face through the trees in a way that made the creative part of Ben very excited indeed.
“Hey,” Ben said, after standing some ways off for around five minutes trying not to have a nervous breakdown.
“Hey,” McKinley said, grinning.
Ben smiled, and tried to casually rub his very sweaty palm against a tree trunk. He wasn’t sure it did much good. Now he was just covered in weird moss flecks.
“I had to run away from Susie to get here,” he said, completely involuntarily. McKinley blinked, and then nodded.
“Right,” he said. “Right. I guess that’s a pretty demanding job you’ve got.”
“I literally ran,” Ben said. McKinley looked him up and down.
“Interesting,” he said.
Neither of them said anything for three whole minutes.
“So do you want to make out?” Ben said, way too loudly. Even he could tell it was too loud. He wanted to die. He should probably just go drown in the lake right now. His life was basically over. He was never going to recover from the humiliation of this moment. Maybe the only solution would be to go join an ashram. He wasn’t actually sure what an ashram was but his mother was always threatening to go join one and leave him to fend for himself. She had actually been saying this for years, even before his father had killed himself, and his father had always said, “As if they’d take you!” So Ben figured probably it couldn’t be so bad, if they wouldn’t take his mother. Maybe that was the solution. Find somewhere that wouldn’t let his mother in, and go there, and never leave.
Actually, now that he thought about it, that was kind of what camp was, except that it only lasted for two months.
McKinley looked like he was trying not to laugh. Ben wanted to die. He was about to say something—honestly, anything, but probably something along the lines of, “This was a horrible mistake and I regret everything and I’m sorry I couldn’t live up to the potential of the zoot suit”—when McKinley settled down at the base of the tree, patted the ground next to him, and said, “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself.”
Ben stared at him for a moment and then sat down. He didn’t even think about the fact that he was probably getting dirt all over his shorts. (For a boy who spent his summer in a cabin in the middle of the woods, Ben did a remarkable job never getting dirty.) “Okay,” he said. McKinley was probably the nicest and also most amazing person in the entire world. Ben had met maybe two of them in his entire life but he was still pretty sure he knew the real deal when he saw it.
McKinley stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankle. Ben tried not to stare. His shorts were very short. “Where are you from, anyway?” he asked.
“Schenectady,” Ben said, and McKinley blinked.
“Wow,” he said. “That is not what I expected.”
“What?” Ben asked, anxious. “Is that bad? Should I—”
“No, that’s fine,” McKinley said, and then frowned. “I’m trying to figure out whether it’s more or less weird that you didn’t know that you were gay knowing you’re from Schenectady.”
Ben, who had at this point not actually said the g-word out loud, swallowed. “Well, have you ever been there?” he asked, more confrontationally than he had really meant to.
“No,” McKinley said. “I just mean, you’re really obviously gay, so like, you probably stand out more in Schenectady than you would in New York, but on the other hand, everybody is probably more repressed.”
Upon reflection, Ben could not really argue with this.
“Well, anyway,” Ben said. “That’s where I’m from.”
“I’m from Massachusetts,” McKinley said. “Waltham.”
“Cool,” said Ben, who had never heard of Waltham.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” McKinley said, twiddling a twig around in his fingers. “I mean, it’s like, a small house, which kind of sucks, because my sisters are like, so loud, but it’s pretty nice, and it’s near the downtown, so I can go, like, watch movies whenever I want, and stuff.”
“Wow,” said Ben, enthralled. “You mean your parents just let you go out whenever you want to?”
McKinley looked at him strangely. “Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I am seventeen.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “I’m turning seventeen next month, maybe then it will be different.”
“Uh… huh,” McKinley said. “Anyway, it’s pretty nice. Obviously I can’t wait to leave, but you know. It’s all right.”
“Do you just go to the movies… by yourself?” asked Ben, who was still trying to wrap his mind around this concept.
McKinley shrugged. “Yeah, sometimes,” he said. “My friends and I go sometimes, and sometimes when I’m done with my homework or whatever I just walk down. It’s nice to walk places, you know? I like to think.”
Ben, who tried to avoid his thoughts whenever possible, found this concept novel.
“Plus,” McKinley continued, “my friends all want to go see Raiders of the Lost Ark or whatever, but like, do they really want to go see Somewhere in Time?”
“I love Somewhere in Time,” Ben breathed.
“Amazing, right?” McKinley asked.
“So amazing,” Ben said. “I went with my mother.”
“I went a second time and made my mom come with me,” McKinley said. “And she was just like, Christopher Reeve is the most beautiful man I have ever seen, and I was like, I know, right? And then she actually watched Superman with me because she just thought he was like, so gorgeous.”
Ben was vaguely aware that his mouth was actually, literally hanging open, but he couldn’t help it. “How,” he whispered, “did you make your mother… do… that.”
“I dunno, she’s just pretty cool,” McKinley said. “I don’t talk to my dad about that stuff, you know. But my mom’s cool. She was like, a hippie, back in the day. She even took us to protests.”
“Wow,” Ben said, awestruck.
“I can’t wait to tell her about the government trying to blow up the camp,” McKinley said thoughtfully. “I wonder if she knows anything about toxic waste.”
“My mom’s a court stenographer,” Ben said.
“Huh,” McKinley said. “How do you get to be a court stenographer?”
“I have no idea,” Ben said. Despite spending so much time talking about herself, his mother never seemed to actually come out with anything of substance, just more complaining about this that or the other. Mostly things about Ben. If he was being honest. Which he tried not to be, as far as his mother was concerned.
“My dad was a lawyer, and they couldn’t ever be on the same trials,” he said. “They always used to fight about it. I don’t know why, I don’t think it actually would matter at all, it’s not like they paid her less. Anyway, he did personal injury lawsuits. He was a real schmuck.”
“Your dad?” McKinley asked, sounding faintly concerned.
“Oh,” Ben said, realizing he had started to sound exactly like his mother. “Well, he was all right I guess. He’s dead now. He shot himself with a gun that had been submitted as evidence.”
McKinley’s eyes were wide.
“It was a while ago,” Ben said. “We’re better off without him anyway.”
“What?” McKinley said, alarmed.
“Oh,” Ben said again. “I guess that’s just something my mom likes to say.”
“That’s terrible,” McKinley said, and Ben froze, like a deer in the headlights.
“Really?” he said. “Or is it just kind of normal, when you actually think about it?”
“No,” McKinley said. “That’s definitely terrible.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “Wait, really?”
“Yes,” McKinley said. “I mean, one time my mom and dad got in a huge fight and the cat got so scared she climbed up a tree and couldn’t get down, but then we all got distracted by the cat and they stopped fighting. And we had to get the fire department to come rescue her.”
Ben waited, but McKinley was just looking at him expectantly.
“What?” he said.
“That’s the whole story,” McKinley said.
“Oh,” Ben said. “Did your mother yell at your father about the cat for years after or something?”
“No,” McKinley said. “It became a running joke. Of course then the cat died which wasn’t very funny, but the story is still good.”
“Sorry about your cat,” Ben said.
“Don’t worry about it,” McKinley replied.
There was an awkward pause.
“Anyway,” McKinley said, snapping the twig in two, “I’m not trying to say that your mom is like, evil or whatever. Just that that’s, like, kind of fucked up.”
Ben was worrying the hem of his shorts so furiously he thought he might rip them. “Once she told me about her brother who was gay and then died sad and alone because he was gay and nobody liked him but I think she made the whole story up,” he said very quickly, which was something he had never told anybody, not even Susie, for obvious reasons. Even though he hadn’t known the reasons were obvious. They definitely, definitely were.
McKinley stared at him, and then kind of toppled forward very ungracefully, if deliberately, hands landing on his shoulders. It was a sloppy, similarly graceless kiss, and Ben thought that he was maybe going to actually bruise from the impact, but it was probably the best thing that had ever happened to him; second only, of course, to the zoot suit.
“Wow,” he said, when McKinley had pulled back, looking slightly manic. “Um.”
“Sorry,” McKinley said, pushing himself off of him and compulsively brushing dirt off of his shirt that wasn’t there, “sorry, that was—that was really awkward, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—done that, I’m, um, this is really—uncomfortable—”
But Ben, watching McKinley quietly freak out, felt suddenly calm, in the way of any creature that has recognized a part of itself in another. McKinley, he realized, was only human, too. Everything suddenly made sense.
“It’s fine,” he said.
There was a pause.
“Wanna make out?” McKinley said a moment later, and it didn’t take long for them to be practically dry humping on the ground.
“This is amazing,” Ben panted. “I don’t even care about my dry cleaning.”
“I hate to break it to you,” McKinley told him, grabbing onto the back of his polo, “but you don’t actually have access—to dry cleaning—at—camp—”
“I have a—deal—” Ben told him, “with—Beth—”
“Oh my god,” somebody shouted, “what the fuck—” and Ben rolled away from McKinley so quickly that they both toppled down into the lake, which definitely hadn’t been there as recently as five minutes earlier, but geography is funny in that way.
Ben came up, spluttering, collar very definitively without pop, hair dripping down over his face. McKinley appeared only a moment later, looking extremely irritated and also extremely attractive. Ben wondered what it would be like to have sex in the lake, and then remembered the stuff about the toxic waste, which hadn’t actually gotten into the water but which could have, and also, secondarily, the campers, and also, thirdly, the fact that he hadn’t even had sex outside of the lake yet, which he should probably worry about first, before moving up to advanced levels.
“What the hell,” he shouted up at Coop, who was standing at the top of the hill, looking traumatized, and then hurried down to the shore.
“What are you doing,” he hissed. “It’s not that far from the campers, anybody could have found you—doing—that—”
“It was a featureless but distinct place in the woods very far away from the campground!” McKinley yelled. “And what do you mean, what we were doing, do you hate gay people, is that what you—”
Ben tried to quiet him down but McKinley just glared at him, so he shut up, which was how he usually dealt with that kind of situation. Or, in fact, always.
“I—no!” Coop said defensively. “My aunt’s a lesbian! She has a reading group and everything! My mom made me go once and it was the worst experience of my life but not because it was full of lesbians! Well, kind of, but not because—I don’t mean—they all wanted to know things,” he said. “That’s not the point! I don’t want to see anybody doing anything like that! Ever! Sex! In the woods! And I’m practically an adult! I’m sixteen!”
“We weren’t having sex,” Ben said.
“Well you might as well have been,” Coop said.
“Coop,” McKinley said. “It would mean a lot to us if you would be supportive of our new and developing relationship, instead of yelling at us.”
“Also please don’t tell anyone,” Ben said.
“Of course I support you,” said Coop, very predictably. Coop was very easy to manipulate. It was because he was too nice. “I just really, really don’t want to see anybody making out. I had a weird experience last night, okay, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, we don’t want to talk about it, either,” McKinley said soothingly. “We just want to make out in peace.”
“Okay,” Coop said. “Good. I’m going to leave now. Just don’t let the campers see you.”
“Right on,” Ben said, which was something he had never said in his life, and immediately regretted.
Once he had left, McKinley climbed out of the lake and shook himself off like a dog, Ben following more slowly.
“Coop is a good guy,” McKinley said ruminatively, “but he’s one of the most neurotic people I’ve ever met. And he doesn’t even realize it.”
Ben laughed nervously.
“It’s okay,” McKinley said. “I know you’re neurotic. But I want to make out with you, and also help heal the emotional wounds left by your dead father and your emotionally abusive mother. It’s totally different.”
“Phew,” Ben said. “You had me worried for a second there.”
“Don’t worry,” McKinley said. “You’re also like, totally the hottest guy at camp.”
“No way,” Ben said. “You are.”
McKinley stared at him. “Okay,” he said. “Sure.”
“What?” Ben said, baffled. “You like, obviously are.” Probably, he thought, McKinley just didn’t know how hot he was. He had heard that could happen.
“I love you,” McKinley said, and pulled his wet shirt off. Or at least, he tried to, but one of his arms got stuck, and also some of his hair, and so Ben had to help him untangle himself. It was very sexy anyway.