I’m about to start swimming again when I see movement against the sky. Birds, flying away from the setting sun. Birds fly back to land at dusk. I smile, and feel my lip split, but I don’t care. I’m going the right way. Land is near.
Chapter 6: Jill
Sitting by the campfire is basically a part of every evening, but the main event that I think most of the kids look forward to is the Beach BBQ, which starts around six-thirty and doesn’t end until well into the night, when the tired campers crawl into the tents they’ve pitched in the sand at the edge of the beach. The other part of the fun is the fact that Bill and Lorrie turn in before the party commences, leaving the supervising up to me and the other counselors.
The things that have gone on at the Beach BBQ are the stuff of legends, but the fact is, no one’s ever been hurt, lost, or gotten killed and the general consensus is that it’s the best part of the whole experience. It always takes place one week after the campers have arrived, kind of as a reward, as a way to say, Congratulations, you’ve made it this whole week—only two left to go.
The kids are excited for the barbeque. It distracts them while we’re out on the morning trail ride, and at one point, Brett nearly falls off when his mount takes a misstep and stumbles coming down a gentle incline.
When we get back, Allison is complaining because she doesn’t want to have to help get all the food ready.
“I’m not really that good in the kitchen,” she says, as she eyes Brett, who’s playing Frisbee with a few other kids.
“All you need to do is either make burgers or slice tomatoes,” I tell her. “It’s not rocket science.”
“Um . . . I’ll be right back,” she says, and before I can say anything else, she flounces out of the kitchen.
“Must be nice to be the owners’ daughter,” Karen says. “She’s probably the only person I haven’t really learned that much from since I’ve been here. I’ll slice the tomatoes.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Although she is lucky,” Karen continues, her gaze going out the window where Allison has seamlessly integrated herself into the Frisbee game by standing so close to Brett it looks like she’s got a hand in his pocket. “All the boys really seem to like her. Can I tell you something? I’ve never even had a boyfriend before. I’ve only ever been kissed once, and that’s because someone dared someone else to do that. Isn’t that terrible?”
It kind of is, but I smile and shake my head. “You’re not necessarily missing out on much,” I say.
“My parents are pretty strict Christians and it was kind of drilled into me at a young age that you’re supposed to wait until you get married. Or find the person that you’re going to marry.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. Some guys would probably find that pretty attractive, actually.”
“Yeah, but does anyone do that anymore? You’ve . . . you’ve been with a guy, right? You’ve probably been with lots of guys.” Her eyes widen. “I mean . . . I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. I just meant that you’re really pretty, too, and I’m sure you have no trouble getting guys. I’m not saying that you like sleep around or anything.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her, suppressing a smile. “And yes, I’ve been with a few guys. But really, Karen? There’s nothing wrong with waiting. If that’s what you want to do. And sometimes it can be a while until you find the right person. Or maybe you’ll end up meeting someone who’s the right person for that time in your life, and then you’ll move on. You’re still young.”
“Maybe you could give me some pointers.”
I laugh. “I’m really not the person to ask for that sort of thing. Allison might be a better bet. Maybe that’s what you could learn from her.”
Karen reaches for another tomato. “I’ve just always wanted to do things the right way, you know? I play by the rules. I guess that was kind of drilled into me by my parents, too. I’ve never even had a beer before. I’m waiting until I’m twenty-one. Seven more months.”
She’s lucky in a way, I think. She’s got a totally clean slate. No baggage from past relationships. That sounds pretty good to me right about now.
Down on the beach, Bill and a few of the campers have built a fire and they’re grilling burgers. I go around and help the kids that need assistance with their tents—some of them can’t get it staked in right, and a few—including Brett—are chasing each other up and down the beach with the rods, jousting. Then I go pitch my own tent a little further down the beach as a way to patrol the parameters after everyone’s supposed to be turned in for the night.
We all eat, and sit around the fire while Lorrie tells a ghost story that I’ve heard every year but always still scares me the same. Bill gets his guitar out and a few of the guys get up to try their hand at night-Frisbee.
By the time full dark has settled and the fire is throwing long shadows across everyone’s faces, I notice Brett and one of the other guys sneak off back toward the trail leading to the ranch. It’s not so much that I want to be known as the cool counselor; rather I get that some things are just more fun with alcohol. So yes, I turn a blind eye when they not-so-covertly haul a thirty-rack down to the beach and haphazardly try to stash it under an old quilt.
Karen comes up behind me and taps me on the shoulder. “They’ve got beer,” she mumbles. “How did they get beer?”
“Who knows. They figure out a way every year. Allison probably got it for them with her fake I.D.”
“They’re underage! I should tell Bill.”
“It’s okay.” I give her a look. “Why don’t you supervise the marshmallow roasting; let me worry about the beer.”
I decline to add that when I say worry, I really mean help myself to one or two.
I watch as the kids covertly go over to the quilt and help themselves to a can. They go in twos or threes, like they’ve got this whole thing coordinated, leaving some of them by the campfire while others have wandered down closer to the surf. There’s giggling and shouting and everyone’s having a good time. Bill is playing “Teach Your Children” and a few of the kids are even singing, the chorus part anyway.
“I wish we had some fireworks!” someone shouts.
“Let’s make some!”
They dissolve into giggles like it’s the funniest thing ever.
I walk over to the quilt, which Brett is sitting near, Allison next to him.
“I’m not going to bust you,” I tell him as he hurries to hide the can, “on the condition you give me one.”
He grins. “I knew you were down,” he says, and tosses me a warm can.
“Actually, I’ll take two. And I better not find the beach covered in empties in the morning.”
“Yes, Mom,” he says.
I drink one of the beers in the shadows by my tent and then go help make s’mores. I’ve got the technique for toasting the perfect marshmallow, and I end up making a dozen or more s’mores and passing them out to the campers who seem only capable of burning the marshmallows or dropping them into the flame.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” Simon asks dreamily from next to me, after I hand him what is probably his fourth s’more.
“There’s plenty,” I tell him. “You should go sit next to Heather,” I add. Heather is a little mouse of a girl who has alternated between following Simon and Allison around, contenting herself with the scraps of attention they throw her way every so often.
“Heather. Here. Give her this s’more.” I pass another graham cracker sandwich to him and nudge him toward her. “I’ve got to get something from my tent.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No, you stay here.”
“Can I put my tent next to yours?”
“No, Simon. Yours is perfectly fine where it is. Or you can go back to the ranch, if you don’t want to camp.”
He gives me a hurt look. “I never said that.” Invariably, some of the campers will go back when Bill and Lorrie do, if for no other reason than they don’t feel like sleeping out in the sand. And sometimes, it’s the biggest, toughest-acting kids that don’t want to be the ones sleeping out in a tent.
I give Simon’s shoulder a pat. “Well, then, you should go enjoy yourself. Go have some fun, Simon. I’ll be back.”
Hours later, the giggles and shrieks have subsided and the campers are all in their respective tents. I lie awake in mine, knowing it will probably be a few more hours at least before I finally fall asleep.
Sean and I tried to go camping once, in Bolinas. It was a disaster and a half. We ended up leaving around eleven that night because he just couldn’t handle sleeping on the ground.
“I thought there was going to be, you know, lodging,” he said as we left.
“It’s a campground,” I replied, trying not to sound as disgusted as I felt.
“Well, we went camping before when I was a kid and we stayed in a cabin. You know, with beds, running water.”
“That’s not camping; that’s staying in a cabin.”
I remembered looking at him as he stuffed our gear back into the car, and wondering, What the hell is wrong with you? It seemed like not the sort of thought you’d want to be having about your boyfriend.
It annoys me that I’m even thinking about this, and then I start thinking of that ridiculous orchid that’s still sitting on the kitchen table, and the one that’s sitting on my mother’s side table. I unzip the sleeping bag and get up, leave the tent. There’s a light breeze that carries a few hushed whispers from the campers’ tents my way, but everything seems to be in order. Most of them are probably already asleep.
I walk down to the water, let my toes be submerged in the edge of one of the waves. The water is cold and frothy and the moon is high in the sky. It’s one of those lovely nights when I should be feeling more at peace than I currently do.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. I turn and squint, and in the milky light of the moon, I can see someone stumbling out of the water. He’s a good fifty yards away from me, and I wonder how on earth one of the campers managed to sneak past me, and what the hell he’s doing in the water at this time of night.
I storm down there. He trips, doesn’t make a move to get up, just lies there on his back, half in, half out of the water, arms splayed, staring up at the sky.
“Jesus Christ, how many beers did you have?” I ask. “And you better sleep this off by morning . . .”
But I stop abruptly, probably five feet away. The full moon has made it bright enough that I can see this is clearly not Brett or one of the other campers. I don't know who it is, and not just because he’s brought his hands up and is covering his face like he’s got the worst headache ever.
“Fucking hell,” he says, before trying to sit up. He makes it halfway and then twists to the side and throws up. It sounds like mostly water.
I take a step closer. “Are you okay?”
He doesn’t seem to hear me over the retching, though, and when he’s done he rolls over onto his forearms and his knees, his forehead on the sand. Perhaps I should be more fearful of strange men that wash up onto the beach, but this one is clearly in no condition to do anything that might put me in harm’s way.
I take a few steps closer and kneel down. “Hey. Where did you come from?”
Finally, he looks at me. For a few long seconds, he doesn’t say anything. Then, he laughs, a dry, hacking sound that quickly dissolves into a brutal cough. He pushes himself up and stands, swaying a little.
“I would think,” he says, his voice rough like gravel, “that I were in heaven if I didn’t feel like such shit.”
“Well, this isn’t heaven; it’s Fulton Beach.” I look out to the expanse of ocean that is reflecting the moon’s light in milky-colored ripples. I see no boat, no vessel, not even a raft or a stick of driftwood. “And you’re not supposed to be here. Where did you come from? Where are you trying to go?”
“Sweetheart,” he says. “If I knew that, I’d be there by now.”
“Do you need to go to the hospital? I can call an ambulance.”
“No.” He shakes his head. “No, don’t call anyone. Just . . . just give me a minute. Let me try . . . let me . . . Goddamn. Do you have any water?”
I can see how dry and cracked his lips are and how the salinity of the water has irritated the skin around his mouth. He has been swimming for a long time, I realize.