Aaron is always ready to fight.
Perhaps a summer spent in a less stressful atmosphere will allow him to relax.
Dylan finally spoke. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” he asked, his anger coloring his voice. “I don’t get you at all. You’ve acted like a crazy person ever since you came here. You attacked me once before, and now you do it again. This time, you’re going to tell me why. So go ahead. Talk.”
Aaron’s fiery anger, always burning hot when aroused, had been banked following his violent outburst. Now he was facing an older boy who was mad at him, one demanding an explanation, and what did Aaron have to say? That he hated him because he was rich? That wasn’t going to make much sense.
He did have reasons, of course. He realized he wanted to spell them out. But here he was, sitting naked in front of another naked kid, emphasizing his own immaturity, and he was not going to list his grievances in this setting. He was distinctly uncomfortable when naked, and being naked with a boy he hated and was physically superior to him was somehow even worse. Maybe much worse because the boy had just been laughing about how he looked.
So he didn’t answer. Instead, he got up, walked over to where his clothes were and started dressing. Dylan didn’t stop him. He did follow him and watched as he dressed. Then, when Aaron turned towards the door, Dylan said, his voice calmer now, “Nope. I want an explanation. I deserve that, and you need to talk. Tell me what this is all about. You have a problem with me. I want to know what it is. Right now. Right here. You’re not leaving till I get one.”
Thinking about all the reasons he had to be mad at Dylan brought back some of Aaron’s anger, and it made it easier for him to answer. There was some defiance in his voice as he spoke.
“You’ve been awful since the first day I arrived. And it’s continued whenever you’ve seen me since then. Then just now I heard you talking to those other two about how small I am. You want a complete list of what you’ve done? I’ve got an excellent memory. It started when I’d just got here.”
He stopped and walked over to one of the benches in the changing room and sat back down. He had a lot to say and thought better when he was seated. He thought, looking up at Dylan, that sitting had put him in a subordinate position, but as he was shorter than Dylan, even standing would be the same. And in fact, when Dylan sat, too, they were much closer to the same height.
He waited a moment, thinking of the injustices he’d suffered, allowing his anger to rise again. It made it easier to talk. “Okay, to start with, the first night I was here, you knocked me down when I was walking out of the dining hall, and when I called you on it, you didn’t even bother to answer. You just looked down your nose at me and dismissed me like I was nothing and walked away.”
He stopped, waiting for Dylan to respond. Dylan waited, too, then asked, “Is that it? That’s what all this is about?”
“No, there’s lots more.” Aaron realized as he said it he sounded defensive. He was going to amend that, but Dylan spoke first.
“Tell me all of it. Then I’ll respond.”
“Fine!” Aaron sat up straighter and spoke at length. He covered Dylan nicknaming him ‘professor’ and then laughing at him with Micah; laughing at him for wearing a bathing suit the first time he went to the beach; bragging about how muscular he himself was and how good he looked that time in the showers with Micah; putting Aaron up on the wrong horse on the trail ride, then not paying attention to the back of the line, which was the reason the whole out-of-control horse business had occurred, then yelling at him and making him walk back to camp when what had happened had been his own fault; bragging about how rich he was when he was with Micah in the clearing earlier that day; and then this latest incident where he was making fun of how undeveloped he was in the showers with his buddies. The longer he spoke, the more angry he got, remembering each incident.
He was watching Dylan, staring at him all the time he spoke, looking for a sign the boy regretted any of this, or even that he saw how he’d hurt Aaron, seeing all the things that Aaron was upset about. Aaron wanted to see some sign that Dylan now recognized all the things that he’d done wrong, seen how badly he’d treated Aaron, seen how much at fault he was.
Aaron in fact never saw any of this recognition from Dylan as he ran out the chain of incidents, his anger growing as he spelled them out. What he’d seen from Dylan was puzzlement, disbelief, surprise, but no sense of understanding how badly his mistreatment of Aaron had been.
And then something changed. As Aaron was nearing the end of his recital, Dylan’s face suddenly showed something entirely different from the way it had been. Aaron saw it first in his eyes and then in his posture and composure. What he saw was fear. He didn’t know why, but seeing Dylan suddenly afraid changed everything. What Aaron felt was sudden triumph. A perverse triumph, but triumph nevertheless. He’d finally got through to Dylan! Fear wasn’t what he’d expected, but it was what he was getting and was deeply satisfying.
He’d thought the best he’d get would be regret, maybe apologies, perhaps commiseration. Never had he expected to see fear.
There was silence in the room when Aaron was done. He expected something from Dylan; at least the boy would defend himself. But it didn’t happen. Dylan was looking at the floor but finally raised his head.
“You . . . you saw us?”
“What do you mean?” Aaron asked.
“Me and Micah. In the woods. When you thought I was bragging about being rich. You were there? You saw what we did?”
The ball dropped for Aaron. Now he saw where the fear was coming from. He had a sudden feeling of power. If Dylan was scared, then Aaron was now in control. He smiled. “I saw what you and Micah were doing. I’m going to tell Harry. What will he do when he finds out a counselor who works with the younger boys is gay and is already fooling around with one of the campers? Huh? How’ll that work out for you?”
Aaron stopped, his anger still raging, feeling very good about what he was saying, and proud that he’d said it. Finally, he was evening up the score for all the putdowns he’d suffered, all the smirks and remarks and looks and slights. This is what he’d done all his life: fighting back against bigger, stronger, richer, more capable opponents. He was getting some of his own back, and it felt good.
Aaron watched as Dylan seemed to shrink into himself. He lowered his head again, then put his face in his hands. He sat there a moment, then got up, moved to where his clothes were and started pulling them on, never looking Aaron’s way as he did so. When he was dressed, he walked to the door, passed through it and out in onto the campgrounds, not having said a word, but walking like someone who was headed for the guillotine.
Aaron watched till Dylan was out of sight. He had no idea why Dylan was acting the way he was, but it gave him pause. What he’d said had obviously caused this, but why? How could it? Dylan was still Dylan: good-looking, rich, charismatic, capable. Even if Aaron did tell Harry what he’d seen, and Harry fired Dylan, well, so what? It certainly wouldn’t have much effect on Dylan. It couldn’t. There were hundreds of boys’ summer camps. And Dylan was good at everything. He could get another counselor’s job anywhere in a second if that’s what this was all about. Heck, if he was rich enough, his father could probably buy him his own camp.
But that wasn’t how Dylan appeared. The triumphant feeling of power, of winning a long battle, slowly fell away. Dylan had looked so defeated. Aaron didn’t understand that. There was more to this than he could understand.
But seeing Dylan so defeated was disturbing. Aaron was a compassionate boy, just as most boys were. Seeing Dylan so desolate was taking the joy out of his triumph. Aaron had to think about this. He had to make sense of it.
He got up and walked back to his cabin. Shaun wasn’t there. Aaron wished he could have spoken to him, but he couldn’t. He sat down, then fell back flat on the cot. He thought about what had happened, how nonsensical it was. And about how uncomfortable it made him.
» » » »
An hour later, Aaron was still lying on his cot. The cabin door opened, and Aaron opened his eyes, hoping it was Shaun. It wasn’t. Dylan walked in. He stood in the doorway, looking at Aaron at the other end of the cabin, flat on his bed. Then he started toward him.
Aaron sat up quickly. He suddenly realized he could be in trouble if Dylan was anywhere near as mad as he himself had been. After all, that would make sense. Aaron had said he was going to tell Harry what he’d seen, and Dylan couldn’t be happy about that. He’d looked defeated, but maybe while thinking about it, he’d gotten over that and now was angry and was going to take it out on Aaron. A going-away present, perhaps, before he was kicked out. Why not? If he was going to be fired anyway, why not make it for something more than just fooling around with a kid who’d probably wanted that as much as he did?
What could Aaron do? He did what he always did at home. He jumped up onto his feet and raised his fists, knowing how ineffectual he’d be battling an incensed larger kid who knew how to fight far better than he did. But Aaron had been beaten up before, lots of times, and knew it was best to put up whatever defense he could.
He watched Dylan closely as the boy neared. He was going to get hit, but he’d been hit before. The pain always lasted a while and then was gone. He’d still have his self-esteem when it was done. And by then Dylan would be gone.
Aaron was thinking this, preparing himself, when it dawned on him that Dylan wasn’t attacking him. The boy was now standing in front of him, but it didn’t seem like he was planning to hurt him. In fact, Aaron now saw some changes in him. His face had an empty look on it. He was in anything but a fighting posture. Gone too was the confident, almost cocky air he always had. Somehow, the boy looked diminished.
Dylan opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and dropped his eyes from Aaron’s. He sat down on Shaun’s cot and then did speak, and he seemed to be forcing his eyes to look directly at Aaron when he did. “You really hate me, don’t you? I don’t know why. That list you read off to me? Most of it was silly. I could tell you why you were wrong about each and every complaint you had, but even if you still believed what you’ve been feeling, it still wouldn’t explain how much you hate me. I don’t understand that.”
He stopped, as if waiting for Aaron to explain, but Aaron was silent, hearing what Dylan was saying and not knowing how to respond. So Dylan continued.
“You said some things that aren’t true, and I can straighten you out on those. What you’re wrong about are mostly what you assumed by what you overheard, and they were all wrong assumptions. First off, I’m not rich. Far from it. I’m, we’re, probably poorer than you are. You can afford to come to this camp. I never could.”
Now it was Aaron’s turn to be confused. “But I heard you bragging about it. I heard you putting down kids that didn’t have what you have. Like me.”
Dylan shook his head. “That’s how you interpreted what I said. I was being sarcastic. I was actually making fun of rich people. Because I’m not one of them.”
Aaron didn’t believe it. “I overheard you. You can have good clothes. You have your own horse. You live in a landscaped mansion and have your own rooms in it. Don’t tell me you’re not rich!”
Dylan was looking down as Aaron was saying this, loudly. He took a quick glance up at Aaron, then away again; Aaron didn’t understand this at all. Dylan was the most confident boy he’d ever met. Now he was having trouble meeting Aaron’s eyes? It made no sense. To Aaron, Dylan seemed to be way, way overreacting.
“We’re not rich,” Dylan said softly. “The only reason you’d think we are is because you got your information from overhearing parts of what was said and making inferences that weren’t true. Here’s what’s true: my dad’s a farmer. Farmers, unless they have huge farms, don’t make much money these days. Prices of crops are kept low by the quantities produced by huge commercial farms. Most independent farms just barely get by. That’s how ours is. The only reason I’m at camp is because Harry pays me a salary and that goes to my dad. That’s okay with me. I don’t need any money here, and I love what I do here. I love being here. But you’re going to wreck that. For no reason at all except for things you’ve overheard and misinterpreted. You’re turning my life upside down, and it’s all a mistake.”
“Turning your life upside down? What do you mean?”
“Just that. Summer camp is the only time of the year I get to relax and enjoy myself. My dad resents my going off, and it’s only the money, my salary, that Harry sends to him that allows me to come here. If Dad finds I’ve been kicked out—and why—then he’ll be happy having me home in the summer. Every summer. I’ll be home for good.”
“I don’t believe you,” Aaron snorted. “Look at you. You probably had riding lessons, sailing lessons, all sorts of advantages; you must have! All these things you’re good at, sailing, riding, shooting and all—you must have had training. I never had any of that! We couldn’t afford it. You wouldn’t be as good at that stuff unless you’d had training. You take care of your lawn on a riding mower. I heard you!”
“Yeah, right! Lessons! I learned all that by doing it, not taking lessons. I had to learn how; my dad would get all over me when I wasn’t good at whatever I did. I learned to ride a horse because we have a couple. I learned to love horses, and how to treat them, but not with any lessons. Ours aren’t recreational horses. They’re there to earn their keep just like I have to do. The riding mower you’re talking about is a farm tractor that I ride to prepare the ground for planting. Believe me, it isn’t a bit fun, spending hour after hour tilling the fields.”
He stopped to take a breath and then raised his eyes to Aaron’s and fastened on them. Some of his usual spirit seemed to be in them. “I only have nice clothes because I have an aunt who works in a shop. She sends me stuff before I come here each summer. Says she doesn’t want me to dress like I do at home where all my clothes are work clothes and look like it.
“So, this impression you have that I’m rich? I never said anything of the sort to Micah. He was teasing me about how hard it was to live in the city, and I was teasing back about how awful it would be there and how wonderful country life was. It was all sarcasm. I don’t know how you could have misheard that.”
It was Aaron’s turn to feel a bit ashamed. “Well, I only heard bits and snatches of what you were both saying. It was both here and out in the woods. Maybe I missed some things or didn’t hear them correctly.”
“Yeah, maybe you did. Maybe that was what you wanted to believe. But you still haven’t said why you hate me so much! You’ll ruin me if you tell Harry. He doesn’t know I’m gay. Even worse, neither does my father. It would be a disaster for him to learn that. But Harry, he’s really great to me, has been since I first came here. Someone else paid for me each summer; I’m not even sure who; I think it was my aunt. She and my dad don’t get along. But getting away from home for a summer when I was nine, it like saved my life. Gave me a break from the farm and my dad. We didn’t have the money to afford it. No one ever told me how that all worked, and I didn’t ask more than once. It seemed a dream each summer, and I didn’t want to jinx it. Harry must have known about my homelife; he was super nice to me and promoted me to counselor much younger than anyone else, and he also paid me a salary.
“The reason I was good at the things we do here is I’d done most of them before and then worked on them here. Shooting? I shot rats at the farm with a .22 starting when I was eight. Here, shooting targets that didn’t move was easy! Swimming? It was the one thing I could do at home. It was in a neighbor’s lake. I could cool off and enjoy myself for a few minutes after working all day in the summer. It was where I began having feelings for another boy, too. It was the lake owner’s son. We never did anything, but I began having those feelings. Sailing? He had a tiny sailboat, so I’d already learned how to do that when I came here—from the boy I had a crush on. Boxing? Harry taught me that here, and I picked it up pretty fast. Harry saw what possibilities I had and put me in charge of other younger campers right away. Those kids always seemed to like me. Everyone did, really. Except you. I don’t know why you misinterpreted things and then hated me. It still makes no sense.”
Aaron was hearing things that flew in the face of what he’d thought. Had he been wrong about Dylan? No, he hadn’t! He began running through his grievances, throwing them at Dylan one by one. He’d done it not long before, and Dylan had just sat listening, not defending himself. This time it was different.
Dylan deflected each complaint with ease. He had a different take on each one, and the more he explained, the more Aaron saw how he’d let his own perceptions, gained on the streets of the South Bronx, color his judgment. He argued a bit with Dylan and in the process explained why he’d thought what he did, but he realized even as he was talking that it had been his quick anger and prideful oversensitivity that had gotten in the way of seeing things as they were.
It was a shock to Aaron to realize how wrong he’d been. He was a smart kid and insightful kid, and his impressions were usually spot on. Here he’d been dead wrong. He was quiet after Dylan was done explaining away each incident that Aaron listed. Dylan, however, had more to say.
“Well, at least I can see now why you hated me. I fit your image of the bullies you’ve had to deal with all your life, bullies who’ve mostly been rich kids. But that isn’t me. That so isn’t me!”
Aaron knew he had to say something, and he said it. “I won’t be telling Harry what I saw. I’m ashamed I said I’d tell him. Even as I said it, I knew it was wrong. Most of what I hated you for didn’t even have anything to do with me. Even if you had been rich and spoiled and bragging about it, how did that affect me? It only did because I get angry too easily.”
He stopped, thinking about what he’d done. Finally, he looked up and said, “I’m sorry, Dylan. I screwed up. You know, I was happy here for a few days. I made a couple of friends. It happened at the shooting range. The three of us beat your record shooting? Did you know that?”
Dylan looked surprised. “No, Harry didn’t tell me.”
“We did, and we became friends, and that was really nice. Then they went home, and I was alone again, and all my resentments came back, and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up right in the middle of them.”
Dylan spoke gently then. “That had to be the worst part for you, Aaron. You had a chance for once in your life to have your best summer ever, and you spent it being angry at me. There’s not much time here left. You can’t get that time you lost back.”
Aaron looked down. “Yeah, you’re right. I blew it. I manage to screw up my life all the time. I could have been happy if I’d simply ignored you, but I couldn’t do that.”
“What didn’t you do that you’d have wanted to?” Dylan asked. “I mean, we still have a little time before camp’s over. And I . . . well, if you wanted me to, I could spend some time with you and maybe help you do things you’d enjoy. I’m good with horses. I could help you become a better rider.”
Aaron sighed. “What I really wanted was to learn how to sail. Johnny told me to ask you to help me do that. He said you were really good at it. But there was no way I was going to do that.”
“We can now. If you want.”
Aaron raised his eyes to Dylan, and what he saw was an entirely different boy than he’d seen before. “I’d like that,” he said. “But why would you want to help me?”
Dylan smiled. “I want you to see who I really am.”
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