Nonfiction by Mike Jeffrey
People sang loud at Keswick, so I sang loud, and I didn’t fall asleep during the sermons as I often did back home. I read along when scripture was quoted instead of flipping to the verses about boobs in Song of Songs.
I was going for the hoodie. The first week of August, Will’s parents drove us to the lake, the cabins, the rash-inducing pool and the open-air chapel in the woods of western Mass. It was a five-hour ride, we watched The Bourne Identity on Will’s portable DVD player in the backseat. One of seventeen classmates in my graduating class at West Bay Christian Academy, Will was pale and lanky, a tennis player, and he already seemed thirty to me. He wore a gold-buttoned sports coat and khakis to church on Sundays, monogrammed Bible under his arm. At sleepovers he played Halo skillfully and without excitement. Will didn’t appear nervous at all, but I’d never been to sleep away camp before. I clenched against a full bladder for ninety minutes, lightly sweating, before I worked up the courage to ask his dad to pull over.
I was worried about the showers, I was worried about making friends, I was thirteen, starting soon at a secular high school. I’d always wanted a hoodie from a camp or summer job or travel team, one that fades and frays and looks authentic, you can’t buy it at the mall. It was a story you wore on your body, people ask you about it, get to know you, get to like you. Your girlfriend puts it on when she gets cold at the bonfire and then you kiss her with sureness and a little tongue maybe. I’d never kissed a girl.
The arrival at Keswick was as cinematic as I’d hoped it would be. Meeting cabin mates and scoping out the girls on the far side of the quad. There was promise in the humidity—watersports, nighttime hijinks and PG-13 romance. But my mom had packed me too many towels. She packed me four towels and everyone else had two, I hid the extras far under my bunk.
Each morning we circled around the flagpole to pledge allegiance and pray, the grass sparkling, wet and cold, many of the two hundred kids in Camp Keswick sweaters from summers past. It was a camp where people came back, stayed for multiple weeks and became counselors once they aged-out.
I ate powdered eggs and fruit salad before morning chapel and morning sports, cold cuts before Bible study, water adventures and pool time in the afternoon, and then wash up, dinner, chapel again, free time in the loft above the mess hall, lights out. A good routine. I made friends from Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. The youth pastor from my church in Rhode Island was visiting to lead worship for the week. We’d met before. Pastor Andrew was twenty-two and super chill. He wore a lumberjack shirt, ripped jeans and leather flip-flops. He came by my table to say hi and told me I looked like my dad, and I was proud. My bunkmates looked at me like, “You know him?”
People sang loud at Keswick, so I sang loud, and I didn’t fall asleep during the sermons as I often did back home. I read along when scripture was quoted instead of flipping to the verses about boobs in Song of Songs. I closed my eyes during prayer times and aimed my inner voice at a loving ear deep in the cosmos.
During free time after dinner, I hung out with girls who wore short, tight, bright shorts, their legs tanned and shining, oh my God. There’d been nine girls in my eighth-grade class and I’d known them all since fifth grade. They were like cousins to me. But here were 100 new ones. We talked about the sermon and our smellier bunkmates and played cards. I tried to make them laugh and sometimes, when our legs brushed, I had to reorganize the lap of my shorts.
I’d never kissed a girl. This thought occurred multiple times per day starting in seventh grade when I developed and obsessed over the notion that all normal boys my age had kissed girls already. I had lied many times about kissing girls none of my friends had met before. I tried to be descriptive, back row at Spiderman 2, on Saturday, when it was raining, the 3:15 showing, and developed an intricate network of invented females like my older brother Steve’s girlfriend’s younger sister and her three smoking-hot friends, one of them a stepsister, the other two friends from gymnastics, whose red thongs peeked out above the waists of denim skirts. My older brother did not have a girlfriend.
At Keswick I was an enthusiastic participant at morning chapel, afternoon Bible study and evening chapel, but at home Steve and I had been skipping church more and more. If I don’t get out of bed, they can’t make me go, Steve had discovered, and I followed suit. But we couldn’t get off that easy. If we didn’t want to go in the morning, fine, but our dad insisted on dropping us off for Sanctuary at 7 p.m. Sanctuary was chill-church for high school and college kids, Pastor Andrew’s congregation. You were encouraged to worship how you wanted. They played Christian period Bob Dylan while everyone took their seats, the room dimly lit, incensed, dusk over the parking lot. You could sit in silence during the songs if you wanted, bring your tea into the chapel, leave tattoos uncovered, keep your beanie on. Nothing like the harsh formal brightness of Sunday morning. Andrew had that laissez-faire preaching style just beginning to blow up in the protestant church. He gave conversational sermons peppered with self-deprecation, pop culture references and emotional whispering.
Most of the time, though, Steve, his friend Spencer and I would wait for dad to pull away and then dip out before the service started and walk twenty minutes to the Starbucks on Main Street. We’d split Frappuccinos and try to bum cigarettes in the parking lot. A much more exciting use of time. On the walk back, we’d develop our own sermon in case our parents asked. I’d been in Christian school since fifth grade and I had plenty to draw on. Jonah was often my first instinct. The guy got swallowed by a whale and lived! He hung out inside a whale for three days! There should’ve been more sermons about Jonah. Jonah would keep people awake.
At camp, Jamie and Rita and Willow and Faith and Dustin and Will sang loud, and I sang loud, palms to the rafters. Jamie and I sat closer and closer during free time in the loft above the cafeteria, separate from the group. We shared bags of Sour Patch Kids and played that game where you close your eyes and the other person glides a finger up your arm, and you’re supposed to tell them to stop when you think they’ve reached the crease of your elbow, but you always tell them to stop too soon. Before lights out, we hugged tightly in the dark and then headed to our cabins on opposite sides of the quad.
I called my parents mid-week and told them I wanted to come back next year, maybe for two weeks. I didn’t mind the mosquito bites on my eyelids. I bought a hoodie at the camp store. Mine was black, with Camp Keswick in white across the front in Papyrus, the preferred font of the contemporary American nondenominational church.
Then came Thursday night. Chapel was extended, like three hours long, it went well past 9 p.m. I’d heard it’d once gone deep into the night and when everyone walked outside afterward, fireflies were blinking down the hill and over the lake, where impromptu midnight baptisms were given.
Pastor Andrew gave his most powerful sermon of the week. He brought out his horn-rimmed glasses with nonprescription lenses for the night. He leveled with us. He sighed into the microphone, paced the stage, squatted with a hand over his eyes, agonized. He had friends who smoked pot. They were lazy, they disappeared into their couches, you could hardly drag them to the movies, but worse than that, they were sad, and they couldn’t figure out why, their brains were so shot. He had friends who had sex. They were empty at night and lonely in the morning after dreams of never-named babies crying for their unlived lives. He had friends who drank. They were reckless—a young mother walking the family Collie at night, a flash of headlights, the screech of brakes, and then Andrew went silent for a long time, minutes, we listened to the insects shriek in the woods.
And Pastor Andrew had friends who lived for God. He stood tall, he dropped the microphone, he didn’t need it, he had God-made lungs. And his friends who lived for God, they woke up and threw back the curtains and took deep breaths through the nose, they remembered to stop and look around at the glory of this creation, and they went swimming in cold rivers with their best friends at dawn and said, Thank you, Lord, and then went out into the world. They pulled over to help broken down cars with wrung-out drivers and left them saved. They volunteered on the weekends. They were immune to the false glow of riches, all the colorful emptiness of the secular world. They were the best versions of themselves. They had doubts, they had struggles, they had sorrows, but God gave them the strength to face it all. They had purpose. They slept well.
Then we sang again, songs with accompanying hand movements, and the one we loved most we sang three times in a row, the final time a cappella. My knuckles grazed Jamie’s thigh, so smooth. I wondered how many thigh-brushes I could get away with, how slow I could go.
Someone dimmed the lights, and everyone was praying. The music played softly in the background, contemporary Christian rock heavily influenced by Death Cab for Cutie. We sat in circles in the aisles and held hands and prayed. Jamie and I held hands, I dried my palms on my hoodie first. We drifted from prayer circle to prayer circle, all cliques dissolving in the whispers and tears. I gave Will the kind of handshake the churchgoing men gave each other at home—firm, eye contact, free hand warmly grasping right arm. I saw my friend Dustin across the room, streams rolling down his face, we met in the middle and had a real grown-man hug and I knew we would be best friends forever, for sure. We were forging permanent bonds in this humble chapel erected by the staff before the inaugural summer some time long ago, I imagined the ‘70s. The counselors praying with their hands on heads and speaking of their own trials. Pumped stomach, thoughts of suicide, thoughts of improper union, for a long time too much porn but not anymore. Shining moments when they found the Lord. We sang again, louder than ever. And then Pastor Andrew invited anyone who wanted to accept Jesus Christ into his or her heart to come on up front. And even if you had Jesus Christ in your heart already, you could come on up and give yourself over to Him again. Everyone went up, everyone wanted Andrew’s hand on his or her forehead, and I could smell his cologne when I was fourth from the front.
We spilled outside, hugging, praying in far off circles in the grass or just talking, telling everything, deaths, divorce, guilty experiments with liquor and hands, doubts. I was careful not to wipe my face. I told Dustin and Jamie that I wasn’t sure I wanted to live. I made my family life sound vaguely awful. My family life wasn’t bad at all, so I stayed cryptic and let the tears from both cheeks meet below my chin and fall to my hoodie as we sat in the grass beginning to sparkle with dew and moonlight under the infinities of God’s sky. I sort of spaced out while Dustin talked about his dad who was gone one way or another, I was busy gauging Jamie’s reaction, waiting for him to wrap it up already, waiting for her to take her hand off his knee. Then we all hugged and went in for one last song.
Afterward we had a second dinner in the mess hall, this one rapturous, with fresh burgers and hotdogs, delivery pizza from thirty miles away. We stood on our chairs and belted the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, cheersing sodas, best night ever, and then we headed down to the lakeshore for a bonfire and s’mores. Jamie got cold, and later in my bunk I plunged myself into the smell she’d left inside—something smooth and fruity cut with bug spray—and slept with the hood up.
The last two days went by too fast, but home seemed sunnier than before, and I looked forward to Sunday. Dustin and I chatted nightly on AIM and Jamie happened to live two towns away. I went over her house one night a week until the end of summer. We swam in her pool, we watched The Pacifier starring Vin Diesel with her parents between us on the couch. One night we played hide-and-go-seek with her brother and took our time finding him. We snuck around the side of the house and kissed for a solid ten seconds by the bushes under the bathroom window.
Then high school started, and I had a new routine. There were so many girls, goddess seniors. In English class, the desks were arranged in a circle and the teacher only asked questions and we called her by her first name. I was stunned by what my classmates had drawn from readings I’d only skimmed. I shaved my dirt-stache. I got tired of talking to Jamie on the phone for two hours every night, and once Xbox 360 came out in November, I didn’t feel like going to her house on the weekends.
At homecoming, the DJ played Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys. The girls from English let me hold their hips in the dark. I tasted vodka for the first time inside Mary-Anne’s mouth, the burn of it sweetly dulled.
Steve had his driver’s license and we could go wherever on Sunday nights, not just Starbucks, certainly not Sanctuary, where, by my account, Pastor Andrew’s sermons went Jonah, Jonah part II, and then a five-week series on all the wacky shit in the Book of Revelation. Andrew never even went to seminary school, I’d learned, and he was always dating a new girl from the congregation.
The next summer I went back to Keswick, I had to, the deposit had been put down by the time I started protesting. Dustin was back, but he seemed different. He’d made varsity baseball as a freshman and only liked hanging out with the oldest kids at camp. He told me I had bad taste, and his favorite bands were Creed and Breaking Benjamin. It was disturbing. We didn’t talk at all after that summer. There were pretty girls again, but a six-week courtship plus ten hours a week on the phone seemed like a lot of work to put in for the rare kiss at the side of a house. I’d felt three boobs at that point, two of them directly—I didn’t have time for this kiddie shit anymore.
During chapel, I developed a seated pose that resembled meditation/prayer and freely dozed. I snuck my cellphone out during an hour on the lake and paddled until I found one grim bar of service and stooped in the puddled hull of the canoe by the far shore where a swan was shit-pissing. I begged my parents to pick me up early, but my dad said, “Stick it out, what’s three days?”
On Thursday night, everything happened exactly as it had the year before with minor variations in cast and playlist. The pastor was some older guy from Connecticut with gray hair parted down the middle. He had props, he tried to be funny, he was not funny. I didn’t cry or hug anyone and the whole thing seemed ridiculous to me now and more than a little creepy, all those young adult men comforting adolescent boys and girls, hands on their foreheads, stroking their arms, hugging. I couldn’t remember being inside the moment, didn’t want to. There was no clock inside the chapel, I discovered.
Occasionally I wonder how the plot might’ve changed had I gone to a Christian high school. I might’ve taken my abstinence education to heart, had a great time at Keswick summer after summer, become a counselor, gone to a Christian college, worked as a missionary somewhere hot and poor, married before graduation, and maybe now I’d be typing a never-published essay on the need for a new aesthetic in post-rapture Christian fiction. Or I might’ve gotten a girl pregnant junior year, been faith-healed and then expelled, and then I might’ve joined the armed services or developed an opiate habit, fallen back into the habit of sleeping through church.
My younger sister did go to a small Christian high school, for two years. These trajectories are not purely speculative.
After a growth spurt, I cleaned out my closet. I threw out sky blue button downs for Easter and maroon sweaters for Christmastime, the only times I went to church anymore. I tossed the Keswick hoodie too, another too-small garment in a trash bag destined for the donation bin outside Wal-Mart.
Steve had a mustard-colored zip-up I often borrowed my junior year. On the back there was a cartoon bun and a cartoon hotdog walking arm in arm below a message stitched in cursive —“Get Fucked.” I liked to wear it drinking flavored vodka in unfinished basements on Friday nights and to debate tournaments on Saturday mornings. I was hoping to lose my virginity soon.
Mike Jeffrey works as a bookseller in New York. His fiction has appeared in Boston Review.