“Wolf or Deer”

When it rained, we played Would You Rather on the cabin floor. It was a game of tough choices. Would you rather eat sand or ash? Snakes in your bed or spiders in your ear? We sat in a circle, knees touching, passed around potato chips that fit in our lips like duckbills. Would your rather drink your own pee or cow pee?

Cow pee is a luxury beverage in certain parts of the world, Cynthia said. She got her period at 9, which meant she knew womanly things far longer than almost all of us in Bunk 12. I was not yet a woman.

Not my parts, said Marjorie. She blew her bangs. Here’s one, she said. Would you rather go cannibal or starve to death?

No brainer, Sasha said, wiggling thick, stubby fingers. I’d totally eat you.

A couple squeals, a smashing of pillows, and the game took a turn. Eat or be eaten? Would you rather it in the ass or mouth?

I’d take pearl necklace, Cynthia moaned. She pressed her breasts together so the tops spilled out from her V-neck, large enough to be their own person. I stared.

Stop staring, she said.

She had woven toilet paper between her toes, shook a polish.

We were 14: Bad skin and braces and too much hair. Hand job lessons with the shaft of a curling iron. We licked juice powder raw, stained tongues a cherry red.

I stood up. The floor creaked.

Going somewhere? Marcy Stein said. Everyone laughed. MC Hammer played from the boom box.

The rain pelted the roof. Activities had been canceled. No swim, archery. I stepped into my clogs without socks, mumbled something about my little sister.

Homesick, I said. The screen whipped shut.

Outside, camp smelled of sewage as if the septic tank had burst. It grew worse as I stomped up the hill, mud splattering, heels sinking into the earth.

Fuck my little sister. My little sister was made for this place. My little sister was having the summer of her life.

Instead I ran to the gardener’s cabin. He was not Israeli but had an Israeli name, which meant wolf or deer. He had an Israeli mother, which gave him built-in exoticism and the potentially tragic arc of army service. He was 23 or 25, scruffy, too old, but still in college because he’d had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had been this close to death. Now he was better although his eyes were ashen, his skin mustard yellow. I wondered if his disease would return; if it was still there, hiding. He lived alone in a row of huts called The Hutch.

That June I’d told my parents, You can’t make me. Camp was a sports camp and I hated sports. Watch us, they said. When I got back I’d have two homes, not one. Ta-da! My parents spoke like they’d just witnessed cell division, the miracle of mitosis.

What did I know from planting and watering and watching shit grow? At home we had a fish, but you can’t split a fish. I took gardening. Side by side we worked, him and me, hands in the earth, long and rectangular as a funeral plot. He had skinny arms covered in fuzz that caught the sun. He wore jean shorts, fringe on his thighs when everyone else wore these shiny wind sails called Umbros. His T-shirts said Megadeth. I chose mine carefully.

When he poured soil he’d look at me with those eyes sunk deep into his face like a deer. Outside the fence other girls wove bracelets from safety pins hooked to their socks, unwilling to get dirty. Jessie, he said. I get you. My parents were breaking up because they no longer understood each other. Sometimes he’d pick me up and carry me across his shoulders down the hill like a canoe, like he might toss me in the lake and paddle me off in the sunset. My legs tingled from the cream of a fresh shave. He’d say: I could fit you in my pocket.

As if there was any other place I’d rather be.

Bunk 12 threw my swim towels off the line so they climbed with daddy long legs and stank of mildew. They dusted my sheets in baby powder and accused me of lice. I had Raggedy Ann sheets, which OK, was asking for it.

Whenever you need to escape, he said, come find me. I’d skip softball and nap in his bed, which smelled like grass and loam. If I left before he came, I’d write a note. If he was home I gave backrubs. He played music. We ate from the garden: green beans, plum tomatoes. He called it our stash. In the mess hall he’d wink or do that snap and point with his hand, like a gun going off. We played checkers, read books. Once he offered me a beer from the back of his toilet. On the rafters faded initials told of past lovers, other summers. When he hugged me and sniffed the top of my head my whole body quivered like one of those novelty toys from the mall, a swirl of glitter.

All of it was forbidden, of course. Who doesn’t want what they can’t have?

That afternoon, I wore Marcy Stein’s lace thong. It rode into my crack as I walked. I wore my black bra, bought from allowance. I sucked a thin spray of Binaca, my feet sopping, but who cared. I was minty fresh.

When he did not answer I went in. Inside it was dark but I could see everything.

He sat up in bed. Covers braced.

Jessie, this is Raquel From Waterfront.

I said I’d forgotten my stash.

He said, This is what’s left. Hey, it’s pretty wet out there. Take my umbrella or if you want Raquel will run you back to your bunk but I just stood there dripping, leaving shit puddles on his floor, as he dangled carrots saying, Which is it?

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About Sara Lippmann

Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collection, Doll Palace. A 2012 NYFA Fiction Fellow, her work has appeared in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. Currently, she cohosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in New York's East Village. For more, visit saralippmann.com.