I could see the steam rising from the water as I chugged full steam down the hill toward the lake. The chill in the air was refreshing, as it had been a hot, steamy summer in the foothills of the Berkshires. As I approached the beach, I stripped off my t-shirt and threw my towel at the waters edge, while in a full sprint. I timed my steps perfectly onto the metal docks and after five tentative strides plunged into the chilly waters of Highland Lake. I swam out to a raft moored 75 feet out from the last dock and climbed aboard. I stood surveying the scene, soaking it in, knowing that this would be my last 7 AM plunge of the year. In a few minutes campers, accompanied by their blurry eyed counselors, would make their way down to the waterfront for a quick dip in the lake so they could earn their Polar Bear badge which would be given out at the "Candlelight Ceremony" that evening. The badge would entitle them to all you can eat ice cream sundaes after the ceremonies. As a camper, I like most of the other kids at Camp Howe, opted for the warmth and comfort of my cabin bunk over the shock and chill of the lake. Steve, the waterfront director, waved to me from the deck of the boathouse, his summer home. Steve was the coolest guy I knew. He was in his early 20's and good looking. He is one of the few people I've ever met who could get away with wearing a Speedo. He owned his own mobile DJ business. He DJ'd our weekly dances, he dated all of the hottest counselors and got to spend all day every summer on his deck overlooking the beach cranking out tunes from his boom box. He took me under his wing this summer making me the only male counselor to lifeguard the waterfront. It was me, Steve and eight girls every day for eight weeks patrolling the waterfront, giving swimming lessons, teaching CPR and First Aid. As uncool as I was, I was perceived as cool by association with Steve and the gorgeous waterfront staff.
Steve beckoned me to the boathouse, so I dove back into the water and swam over to the docks just as the first kids were gingerly dipping their toes in the water. "Last day Sull", Steve said with some melancholy. "last chance.". "Last chance?", I questioned him, wondering what I had missed. "Sull, I know you dated Carol for most of the summer, but you have completely missed the boat". "What do you mean?", I replied, clueless. "Brandl came to see me last night and spilled her guts out. She's liked you all summer, but you started dating Carol, then when you broke up with her she thought that would be her in, but you never did anything about it."
I was replaying the summer in fast forward through my frontal lobe. How did I miss all the signals? Steve must be wrong. Karen Brandl was the cutest, hottest, sweetest girl in camp that year and most any year. She was way out of my league and I knew it from day one when we were paired together for some lifesaving exercises. She had a boyfriend back home. She was the head of her cheer leading squad. She was absolutely perfect. I would catch myself admiring her from across the dock while the children splashed about unaware of the danger they were in by my inattentiveness. I resigned myself to being friends with her and never attempted any flirtation. We would take walks and talk about our single moms, trials being the oldest of big families and hopes for the future. I confided in her my crush on her friend Carol, another lifeguard and she was the go between to get us together. Carol and I became the camp couple of the summer and the preteens lived vicariously through our courtship, ups and downs and subsequent break up. All that time, Karen and I were the best of friends. We lay on our backs at night on the cool sand and looked at the stars shimmering over the lake. I hugged her when she broke up with her boyfriend back home. Our cabins would always buddy up during the camp Olympics. We always sat next to each other in the dining hall, her at the end of her table of campers and me at the end of mine. When I saw her standing alone, not dancing the last slow dance of the year, I excused myself from my ten year old dance partner and went over to her. I led her out onto the dance floor and swayed to "Stairway To Heaven". I had no idea why she was crying.
Steve patted me on the back and said, "Sull, I've known about her crush on you all summer. She's always looking at you, she's always where you are. Well, you've got the rest of the day to do something about it". He saw the look of enlightenment on my face and felt his job was done. "Man, I can't believe you didn't know!", he laughed, almost mockingly then proceeded to walk over to greet the Polar Bears frolicking in the inner den.
I made my way up the hill to the flag raising ceremony which happened every morning right before breakfast. Everyone in the camp would circle the flagpole with the boys on one side coming from the boys unit and the girls on the other. I looked at Karen from across the circle. She was busy talking to her campers, smiling and engaging.
She was not staring at me.
After raising the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the 4H pledge we made our way to the dining hall. My campers and I sat at our usual table while Karen and her campers sat at the table next to us. We turned to each other and said "good morning " simultaneously and giggled. She turned to talk to her CIT and I kept looking at her. She turned to say something and caught me staring. "Whats up...everything alright?". She broke my trance. "yeah..ah...I..I need to talk to you alone later." "OK, lets walk down to the waterfront together after breakfast. I'll meet you at the flag pole after the bugle." "OK", I said briskly and turned to pass the pancakes or toast or something to avoid staring. During breakfast I glanced at her occasionally trying to catch her looking longingly at me. Maybe Steve was yanking my chain; I didn't catch her once.
After breakfast I met her at the flag pole and we made our way down the hill I had sprinted down two hours earlier. Time had slowed down. Whats up...everything OK", she asked. "Yeah," I was pussing out. "I'm just sad its our last day here. It flew by so fast. I'm going to miss everyone."
I couldn't bring myself to ask her.
"Yeah, me too. I'm going to miss everyone." We walked the rest of the way in silence with the sounds of campers hooting and hollering their way down to the beach. We went into the boathouse and got our clipboards and whistles. At the bottom of the stairs she turned to me to say something, then stopped. She gazed into my eyes right through me. I gazed back. For a moment time stopped. Then the pause button was released and things started moving again. She turned and made her way out the dock to the outer den to teach her Advanced Swimmers. Steve was right. "You are such an idiot; she liked you all along" I said to myself as I gathered my Beginners for their final swimming test.
We walked together up the hill for lunch without a word between us, just an occasional glance. We sat at our respective tables and occasionally looked over at each other smiling, knowingly, as if we were going to burst. After lunch was rest hour, a time where I usually napped while my campers usually hung from the rafters, gave each other wedgies and gossiped about which 12 year old girl on the other side of camp had the bigger boobs. I couldn't sleep, so I went over to Borquies cabin where his eight year olds were lying quietly in their bunk. "Dave" I asked him "did you know that Brandl had a crush on me?" "Jesus Sully, everyone knew, even Carol. Its why she broke up with you. Brandl told her and Carol flipped out." I didn't want to correct Borquie, but the break up was mutual. We dated for three weeks and she never let me get past first base. Not acceptable when camp was full of plenty of girls that would do more, alot more. "You are kidding Sully. You didn't know that? You are with Brandl all the time. You spent more time with her than you did with Carol when you were with Carol".
He was right.
Eric Powell, camp jock and most popular counselor came over and we sat on the picnic table in front of Dave's cabin. He brought over his boom box and we sat listening to "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" on an album oriented rock station out of Springfield. That song goes on for about 11 minutes and I sat there thinking about all the missed signals. What if we dated all summer? What if I never said I liked Carol? Should I even bother now with me being a senior in Northampton and her going back to her head cheerleader/best looking girl in school lifestyle at Pioneer Valley, 40 miles from me? Then it hit me. We were friends. If there was more then it would happen, all in good time. At the end of the song when it changes from a funeral dirge to a raucous party song Powell jumped up on the picnic table playing his fiercest air guitar solo of the year. Just as the song ended the bugle sounded the end of rest hour. Time to head back down the hill to lifeguard the rest of the afternoon for free swim.
When I got to the waterfront Karen was already manning her post on the raft. I took my place on the outer den next to Darlene, whom I had known since my days as a camper. We were campers together, CIT's together and now counselors working waterfront. She was a stunner, as were all the girls that worked the waterfront. Six feet tall, legs up to the sky, tanned. We were mistaken as a couple because for the last few years we would always swing dance to "Jailhouse Rock" each Wednesday at the dance. There was never anything more than friendship, but after this situation, I had to wonder.
"I'm so excited for you David" she greeted me with a hug. The hug wasn't particularly unusual as she greeted most everyone with a hug. She was syrupy sweet, but in a real maple syrup way, not the fake stuff.
"Why?". I knew why.
This was getting ridiculous. "I talked to Karen on the way down here and she says you know. She's so happy". "So you knew all summer Dar?".
"Of course silly."
When it came time to switch guard stations I asked Dar if I could take raft next so I could see Karen. I swam out to the raft and took the life preserver from her. I put my hand on the small of her back. She smiled and dove in toward the docks. I spent the rest of afternoon out on the raft soaking in the late August sun, anticipating the evening to come.