True Story, Issue #17

"Unmolested" by Michael Lowenthal

True Story, Issue #17

In the wake of a sex-abuse scandal at an all-boys’ summer camp, an openly gay alum returns as a “guest-star counselor.” But then, he finds himself not only a role model but also the object of an adolescent camper’s crush.

From "Unmolested" by Michael Lowenthal

Colin introduced me during lunch, onstage in the dining hall, with the fanfare you might expect for a swashbuckling film star who also happened to be an Olympic sprinter. The smallest kids stepped up onto their benches for better views, and the older boys squinted toward the stage as if at sunlight. Stomping their feet in acclaim, they shook the wagon-wheel chandeliers dangling from the rafters.

When the hubbub subsided, we went back to eating, and I could sense the campers tracking my every move. (That’s how a Pathfinder takes a sip of juice!) The adulation felt troubling—hadn’t the deification of leaders been part of the camp’s problem?—and also more than a little ludicrous: in Boston, I was just a no-name, rejection-collecting writer.

Maybe what troubled me most was that their worship felt great. I loved it.

After the meal, as I left the lodge, a horde of ten-year-olds swarmed me, tugging at my wrists and my belt loops. The crush was overwhelming, but this was part of why I enjoyed boys their age, the propulsive intimacy they hadn’t yet learned to be ashamed of. The gang of scruffy, shirtless kids hauled me out to the lawn to play “slack ’em,” a game I’d practiced endlessly as a camper. Two competitors stand some yards apart on sawed-off stumps, holding ends of a thick Manila rope, and try to knock each other off-balance by yanking or slacking the line. One boy after another took me on; I trounced them all. They dared me to play with just one hand, and then with just my weaker hand, all the while quizzing me on my Pathfinder achievements. What animal had I trapped? How had I managed to cook it?

Then my opponent, a geeky blond with a pointillist spray of freckles on his nose, asked where I lived. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he added.

I’d planned on coming out, of course—why else was I here?—but I’d only just begun to bask in the campers’ adoration. By saying I was gay, would I blunt their love? So soon?

But no, I reminded myself: the goal was to use their adoration. To wow them with my achievements, then let my risky candor ride the coattails of their awe.

I pulled the rope, then reeled in more, forcing the kid forward, until he teetered along his stump’s front edge. “I live in Boston,” I said. “But my boyfriend? He’s in Manhattan. I can’t tell you how sick I am of going back and forth!”

Without warning, I slacked the rope; the boy flew off his stump. All of the kids around me wore expressions just like his: weightless, wide-eyed, scrambled with surprise.