secret keepers

Last night I slept with the windows open and something about the air made me think of the summers I spent being a camp counselor. I lifeguarded, ran arts and crafts and made sure first aid was administered. It wasn't the first time I'd spent a summer away from home but it was the most significant. I had my own car, and no place to be on the weekends or after dinner.

It's a period of my life between high schoool graduation and college where I was learning what to do with freedom. I didn't always make the best decisions but I always had fun. We made nightly trips to the ice-cream place, which was at least 15 miles from the camp. We listened to music and talked about concerts we'd like to see. My hair was the longest it's ever been and nights we got really bored, one of the girls would braid it after I showered and it would be wavy and messy the next day. I wish I had a photograph from then.

Each week there were new sets of kids and new volunteer counselors who worked more closely with the children and then went home after the week. But we spent every week of the summer there, living in a small and barely air conditioned cabin in the middle of the state forest. There were 3 rooms in the cabin: a sitting room with a large counter and refrigerator, a room with four twin/debunked beds where we slept and watched a very tiny black and white TV that only got one station which meant we mostly watched soap operas during lunch and then, of course a bathroom that reminded me of the gym bathroom from my middle school. We separated the open doorways with curtains except for the bathroom. My friend, C, made such a fuss that they found an old door from one of the cabins undergoing renovation and attached it for us. So we had one internal door and two entrances to the outside.

The time after sunset was my favorite. We'd go out to the lake and just sit on the dock, sweaty and tired from the day. A few of the guys were in college and I'd listen to their stories about campus life, imagining what I'd seen from movies or TV shows. I was 18, in-between childhood and something else and trying very hard not to wear my heart on my sleeve. We would dare one another to skinny dip or howl at the moon. We snuck into the neighboring camps and tee-peed the cabins or drew something with chalk on the door. One night, we stole all of the toilet paper from the permanent staff boys' cabin while they were in town getting groceries. Sometimes we searched for the alligators we were told to look out for, and while all of those things were fun, it was the stories that pulled me back again and again.

We told ghost stories and urban legends. We read books aloud from the dilapated bookshelves in the staff room. We talked about people we loved or wanted to love and shared the details of our lives back home. We were stuck with one another so we might as well make the best of it, which isn't to say we didn't have disagreements or drama or mysteries we could not solve like why the crafts money kept coming up short. Was someone stealing money and if so, who? It was like being stuck in a terrible Sunday night mystery. Whodunnit?

We never found solid proof but someone got fired anyway.

And we returned to the docks for solace, saying, "I can't believe she would so that!" or "Did you know it was her?"

One night in particular I opted out of the trip to town because someone had to stay behind. So, it was just me and N and the gators.

I met N the first summer I was there. He was tall and athletic and ran track for his university. I was the only girl in our group who didn't giggle when she saw him. During our first aid training the week before camp started, I teased him about the way he dressed a wound on the dummy and he pushed me in the lake with my shoes on. If I had a crush on him, I wasn't fully aware of it. It was more of a fascination with someone who is older, a connection to someone I felt I could trust, which hadn't happened for me in a long time.

He was the first friend I'd made away from school, the first person I told my true secrets to and the first outsider who knew what happened to me the night my life changed forever.  He was someone who did not judge me or ask a lot of questions. He is the reason I began to open up connect to people again. It was also his idea to buy a bunch of those frozen ice popsicles which it seems like we lived off of that first summer. He gave me an epi-pin shot when I got stung by a bee and I cried like a baby.

That night, the moon was high and bright, illuminating the typically dark lake and casting shadows on our faces. I loved talking to him, hearing about his classes and the kinds of things he wanted to learn.

"You don't treat me like the other girls," he told me.

"How's that?"

"You listen to me."

"You tell a good story," I said because it was true. He was gifted at punch lines and twists, knowing when to reveal the key to the story.

"No one has ever said anything like that about me," he edged closer to me.

"You should write them down," I suggested.

"Nah," he said, "that's not for me."

"You don't know that for sure," I responded. "I think everyone has a story to tell. And someone who needs to hear it."

"Maybe so," he conceded and told me about the night his sister did not come home. "Most people thought she ran away," he said. "Not me. I knew something terrible had happened. I just knew it. Actually, and I've never told anyone this before, I had a dream before she disappeared that she was swimming away from me at the local pool. I couldn't catch up with her no matter how I tried and the pool went on forever and then she just faded away."

I said nothing. I did not know how to respond so I nodded but I wasn't sure he could see me in the dark. He took my hand and said, "I have a sense about people. Kind of psychically I guess. I have dreams and then sometimes see the same scene play out weeks later."

We sat silent beside one another for a while. The unspoken question: "what do you sense from me?" between us.

I was used to secrets. I knew how to handle and guard them.

"It's okay, you know" he said, finally. "The thing you don't want people to know."

I wanted to ask, "which one" but the others arrived with ice-cream and found us holding hands. There was a big fuss with whistles and rude comments but he never corrected them. In fact, he let everyone believe we were in a kind of summer romance. When we went for walks together, everyone teased us and drew their own conclusions about what we were to one another. But no one guessed the truth: that we were secret keepers.

When the summer was over, we wrote a few letters to one another and tried to stay in touch. He didn't return to camp the following year and I missed him terribly. The last I heard he was working with Doctors Without Borders. Every now and then, I think of that summer and when I do, I think of his stories. I think of the dock and the moon and strawberry ice-cream. I think of all the sunburns and bug bites, the rock hard toast and spongy pancakes. I remember the old record player and the four records we played over and over during rec time. And all the ways we filled our time after hours and the weekend trips to one another's homes.

But mostly, I think about how close we got. How we decided what to say and when; how we connected even though we knew our time together was short. And I think about the secrets, the ones we never spoke aloud and the ones we shared.


Who was your first secret keeper? What did you learn from them? Do you still keep in touch?