by Sandra Marchetti
I held his wrists as we stood near the campfire and I whispered, quite seriously, “If I can do it, so can you.” That was the last time we spoke at teen camp.
I had a history of unfortunate experiences with boys from church. The first time it happened was during my last year of Vacation Bible School. We were in fifth grade and all I could think about were boys and the Jesus sandals we were supposed to make on the second to last day. We were going to make entire outfits from the time of Christ and walk in a parade in the parking lot. I was especially excited about creating my own pair of B.C. footwear. Sadly, when the time came to march, the cardboard cutouts proved way too big and the ribbons dug deeply into my arches. I limped around on the hot asphalt, weakly holding up my bed sheet and flopping along.
Back in fifth grade I stood in that same parking lot with my crush after VBS. I had traded out the Jesus sandals posthaste for my favorite rainbow jelly platforms and we held hands under a tree waiting for our parents to pick us up. Afterward, I listened to Shania Twain songs in my bedroom, especially, “You’re Still the One,” which Shania wrote for her middle aged producer/husband of the time, Mutt Lange. What can I say? At twelve I was looking for long-term commitment. I had liked this boy for years, and he sort of stuck around to be my friend. This was probably out of pity, or because he liked my shoes, because as soon as he hit junior high he announced his wish to be a gay airline pilot, traveling the world to party with cute men on sunny beaches. I was obviously not his speed.
Now back to Camp White Eagle. A 4-H camp most of each summer, the landscape was not for the faint of heart. Huge stone steps cut right into the sides of the hills and the river over flooded its banks into lush and mosquito-filled valleys. The only part of the property that seemed Midwestern in any way was the abandoned cornfield, which is where we had our campfires. We were seventeen; around the fire that night it felt somewhat like a revival in the humid western Illinois air. I had recommitted myself to Jesus with vigor that week. A walk in the lovely walnut grove dappled with yellow light and God-time devotionals where I sat in the woods on my lavender backpack reading my Bible with colored gel pens at the ready, not to mention avoiding snake bites, work that sort of miracle on an impressionable teen girl. I thought we were all aligned here, full to bubbling with the Holy Spirit.
As the campfire drifted to ashes, I went up to my crush, this guy who made hemp necklaces and wore Dark Side of the Moon t-shirts, who I had been coveting in all of his bad-boy-Christian-glory for a year or more. I was compelled after the sermon, which urged us to commit more fully to our mustard seed faith, to murmur in his ear: “If I can do it, so can you.” His wrists went limp in my hands and his shadow receded from the campfire towards his pack of friends then away into the growing silence. I skulked back to my cabin, falling behind the girls as I replayed the misplaced zeal in my head.
My shame was confirmed when he began to avoid me at meals. He even slipped from view when our friend hit his head on the diving board during an ill-advised cannonball and we all rushed to the pool worrying over his recovery. My crush didn’t reply when a bunch of girls, including me, went out in our very see-through pajamas with flashlights to code signals into the boys’ cabins late at night. I immediately felt like Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill after he meets Julia Roberts for the first time. She is leaving his apartment and he remarks that it was “surreal, but nice” to meet her. As he closes the door, he cringes: “Surreal but nice? What was I thinking?” In short, I felt like an ass.
I was the Hugh Grant of Camp White Eagle. Who was I to let my supposed piousness overtake me? To think I could will this boy singlehandedly into what I wanted him to be? I wish I could say this was the end of my crushes on boys who were only at church for their friends or because their parents made them come. It wasn’t. I went on pining for them long after we spun off those gravel roads of camp and onto the highway.
The happy ending? I married a good guy—one who would hold your wrists back just to be nice. He was actually a friend I went to church with for many years and never branded as crush-worthy. Recently my husband and I were at a pub and ran into the kid from the campfire. We had somehow remained acquaintances over the years, and it seemed like my former crush’s life had steadied itself. All three of us swapped yarns about church, camp, and our friends from that time: “It’s hard to believe that was over ten years ago!” we kept saying. I, of course, never brought up this story, and I secretly hope he’s forgotten my overzealous words, but maybe not the campfire.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications, and two chapbooks, The Canopy and A Detail in the Landscape. Her work appears in The Hollins Critic, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She lives outside of Chicago and attended Camp White Eagle and Rock River Christian Camp as a teen.