The summer I was 15, I learned how to cook breakfast for 40. I learned to ride bareback. I found out that innocence can be a terrible thing and that there is no apparent limit to adult hypocrisy. I learned that desire, obviously the root of these last two discoveries, is as beautiful as sunrise in Tuolumne Meadows and as tricky as a kite.
I had spent the two previous summers at a small camp in Nevada. Before that, I'd gone to Camp Champlain in Upstate New York, a mostly Jewish summer camp heavy on headband-matching Bermuda shorts, tetherball (possibly the ideal activity for myopic Jewish children, who put themselves and others at risk when playing actual sports with actual balls that are not safely attached to poles) and a weeklong Color War coordinated by young men who would grow up to be bankers, ophthalmologists and advertising executives ("Eins, zwei, drei, vier, everybody give a cheer. Red Team, that's us, rah, rah, rah."). I might not have hated every minute of it. I did like being part of the group that spied on our blond counselor while she showered and discovered her dark pubic hair (the first time I heard the expression "The rug don't match the drapes"). I liked sitting behind the ceramics cabin, reading Herman Wouk in a menthol haze, while the art counselor smoked and made out with her boyfriend.
My mother became concerned, I think, about the kinds of things I liked and sent me to the camp in Nevada, where I learned to ride Western, hike, make fry bread in the Paiute manner, identify a few desert flowers, display my manzanita-scarred legs nonchalantly and show off an exotic, slightly dangerous Jewishness, something I didn't know I had. (Exotic? My grandmother and her friends playing canasta? Overcooked vegetables? At home, I was a dumpling with glasses. In Nevada, I was a cross between Laura Nyro and Emma Goldman.) I loved that camp better than any place I had ever been. I wept at the end of both summers; I dreamt of my horse, Goldfinger; and I wrote bags of mail to my new best friends from Southern California and Nevada, girls named Babs and Daisy and Tug.
The third summer, the camp owners invited me back as staff -- of sorts. Before the start of summer camp, they had yet another program, something for the National Science Foundation. I would work in the kitchen, breakfast and lunch. Someone who knew what he was doing would be in charge of dinner. The staff divided up, as people do. On one side were the locals, high school and community college kids, girls mostly, and on the other side were me and my heroes, Jim, the hiking counselor, and his good friend Charley, about whom I knew nothing more, then or now, than that he was African American, good-looking and softhearted. He had a romance with one of the other kitchen girls, and I pursued the same with Jim, astonished that he gave me even a minute of his tender, blue-eyed attention, let alone whole evenings of that, and more. Jim, 20, was the romantic male lead of the place. All the girls watched when he tossed back his shiny, stick-straight blond hair; when he hid it under a bandana, chingaso-style, the boys copied him. He had a small, triangular, sunburnt nose and a big, triangular, thin-lipped grin. I think he had dimples. Certainly, he had the aura of dimples. When we all stood on the banks of a quick and wide river in the Sierra Nevada, and Jim said, "Jump to that rock!" I threw myself face first onto a flat boulder in mid-river, and, even as I lost my grip and sank, inch by miserable inch, into the icy water, I was glad, sure that my willing, even fearless, jump had distinguished me.
The kitchen work was what kitchen work usually is: scraping, chopping, folding jugfuls of wet this into mounds of dry that. Tedious, rather than truly arduous, hard on the feet and lower back, filled with small, uninteresting and unavoidable dangers (my hands were freckled with burns; another girl lost her left eyebrow and her bangs, lighting the pilot too slowly) and a collective desire to have whatever fun we could while working and an outsize wish to have serious, untrammeled fun every night. At 7 o'clock, we washed off the Crisco and the Bisquick and the powdered eggs and left our greasy shirts and floury pants in a corner and partied until the next, endless shift. One morning, the other girl was late, and I had to make breakfast by myself for all the staff and the NSF students. I discouraged the ordering of biscuits and poached eggs (always some older man, watching his weight or heart condition, ordering poached eggs), encouraged oatmeal and fruit and dished out scrambled eggs, eggs over easy, eggs over hard, Canadian bacon and pancakes, for 2 1/2 fast, hard hours. I became at home in the kitchen, then. It was not domestic cooking, as my mother did it (lamb chops surrounded by lots of Stouffer's delivered at 6 p.m. to a singularly unfussy man and two ungrateful children), and it certainly wasn't gourmet, as I understood it (bleu cheese, candied violets, things with crabmeat). It was cooking for the army, for the troops, and it suited me, for the rest of my life. I waitressed, bartended and cooked up and down the Northeast until I finished college, and I liked the bartending as much as I liked classes; I was as flattered by the pezzonovante's attention as I was by the professor's, and I pursued my tips at least as seriously as I did Latin honors. Until 10 years ago, I was still occasionally scanning the want ads, looking under "waitstaff" or "bartender" or "cook." I could do it still, I think, if I had the right shoes.
OUR EVENINGS WERE MAGICAL, romantic, thrilling. I remember the fast, indigo fall of night and my heart beating as I waited for Jim. I remember dressing in front of a tarnished mirror, trying to find the perfect outfit with which to lose my virginity (batik halter top or gauzy tunic with bra? Bell-bottoms or denim cutoffs?) without arousing my roommate's interest. And I remember the late-night run, rustling through the pines, up to Jim's cabin. Charley was there, too, angry that one of the senior staff, Mr. C., an ex-Navy man in his thirties, was pursuing Charley's girlfriend in the classic manner: genial, persistent, vaguely threatening. I was pleased to be included in the problem-solving, as if I were a grown-up, as if I might have something to say about older men and young girls, about race relations, about what gave that fascist the right to bother this poor girl. I thought the man was terrible, and that Charley was wonderful, and I said that. I thought the girl was silly, and I didn't say that. We calmed Charley down (Jim calmed him down; I sat on the end of Jim's bed, kicking my bare feet and waiting for Charley to leave). When we were finally alone, Jim turned out the light, and we lay down to make out, as I think we had before. I remember feeling at ease; I didn't know much about sex, but I knew that I was safe with Jim, that my desire was as real as our glasses on the nightstand, and that no harm would come to me, whatever happened.
No harm came to me, but not for my lack of trying. He kissed me in a way that was, and probably still is, my standard for good kisses. Gentle, firm, knowing and increasingly passionate, until my clothes (I had gone with the tunic and bell-bottoms, so as not to look too eager) were on the floor and I was holding on to his shoulders as if I were about to rappel down his body, which I hoped I would. I think now that the bra stopped him cold. Bare breasts would have been fine. He went to college in California -- girls were going braless all the time. Something skimpy, lacy or black would have been fine. But the inescapable girlishness of my pink polka dots did him in. It was so clearly the bra of a nice girl, who didn't yet drive or drink. Moonlight fell across my chest, and he stopped the wonderful kissing to take a close look at my underwear. I saw him smile, and the smile was the first bad thing that happened. He patted me the way you pat a tearful baby and pulled himself onto one elbow.
This is not how it should be for you, he said.
I thought -- as I had thought every night since I was 13 years old and had watched him pitch our tents in a driving rain, had watched him peel off his rain-soaked T-shirt in Yosemite and had prayed, Oh please, God, forget anything else I ever asked for -- this was exactly how it should be. Would He condemn me to boys I knew? Boys whose mothers were friends with mine? Boys who were still struggling with facial hair and wayward hormones and stupid jokes? I didn't argue. I lay there, breathing hard and hopeful, not knowing any of the things that might turn the tide in my direction. We lay side by side, and he held my hand. He kissed me on the forehead.
"You're going to remember me for this," he said, and he was right.
I OVERSLEPT THE NEXT MORNING and ran from Jim's cabin to the cookhouse, my sneakers in my hands. The camp directors drank their coffee and watched me run, and they didn't smile. After lunch, someone, I imagine one of the camp directors, either half of the grim, handsome couple who ran the place, told me to go into town with another counselor to get groceries. It was a long, dusty ride in the pickup and not much fun getting the groceries, which were of the generic, five-gallon kind, and then we were back. I put on a clean T-shirt and ran back to Jim's cabin -- what did I do that summer but change my clothes and run to his cabin? The cabin, the one Jim and Charley shared, was empty. There were -- and how can I remember this? -- two leaky ballpoint pens in the corner and some dust bunnies that must have been disturbed when duffel bags were pulled out from under the cots. I wandered around the little room as if through a dark forest, calling his name, touching the windows, the floor, the wet circle where a soda or a glass must have been, in the last hour.
Someone told me that they were gone, that they had been fired and taken to the local bus station. I understood that they had been fired for their relationships with the kitchen girls -- me and the blonde. I never saw Charley or his girlfriend again. I don't know if she went home and forgot him, or instead snuck out to meet him at the bus station, and they were never parted, and they now have a house in the valley worth more than they paid for it and teach at the local tumbleweed high school and have two handsome sons, who must be in their twenties. I doubt it.
The camp directors called my parents and said that I would be home a few days early. I was supposed to go to my cabin and stay there until the next morning, when someone would take me to the airport, from which I would take a puddle-jumper to San Francisco and a big plane home to New York. No one spoke to me. I didn't stay in my cabin. I walked around the camp, kicking at scrub, cursing my fate and, in particular, the camp directors. There was a light burning in the lodge, and I heard voices. I stood outside the door and heard the camp directors, the ex-Navy man and the pot-smoking art counselor. There must have been other people, too. I walked into the room and backed up against the wall, as they turned to look at me.
Go back to your cabin, the man who ran the camp said. Someone said, in a let's-wrap-this-up sort of way, that the guys had to be sent away for the good of the camp, to protect the campers and young staff. I said I didn't understand. I'm pretty sure that for most of that evening I kept saying, I don't understand, in a dull, stubborn way. I couldn't win, and I wouldn't go away, so I just stood there and was something like a conscience, even if I was the only one who believed that conscience was missing. Finally, Mr. C. explained to me -- impatiently, as if I were a lot dumber than he had thought -- that Charley and Jim had behaved badly and had been sent home.
"And me?" I said. "Why am I being sent home?"
Your stay is almost over anyway, they said. We knew you'd be upset; we just thought this would be easier.
"I don't understand," I said, and Mr. C. rolled his eyes. "Jim didn't do anything wrong, and neither did I, and you sent him away, just like that, because you don't like his attitude. And now you're getting rid of me, and you got rid of Charley because Mr. C. likes his girlfriend, and she didn't want to go out with him because she likes Charley more."
Did I know Mr. C. had a wife? Maybe I did. Did I know that the camp director's marriage was dissolving, in part because of his philandering, which was, a counselor told me years later, on a massive, Clintonian scale? Not at all. I didn't know, until a few weeks ago, that the rumor out there in the world is that Jim is now a transsexual woman. Although I prefer to think of him as that chivalrous 20-year-old (he wrote me for almost a year, and he did let me down, very gently, indicating that things were going well, then very well, then happy beyond description, between him and his lab partner, and also that he would never forget me). It makes no difference to me into what middle-aged self he has disappeared. Bald businessman or broad-shouldered woman with a big, triangular grin. If he is gone, it doesn't matter how, and if I could still make him out, inside the current incarnation, that would be all that mattered.
I would like to know how much of what I remember is true, if anyone could tell me. I don't want to ask anyone who could tell me. I don't want to call the camp director and bother her with this stuff. I certainly don't want to ask her ex-husband, whom I remember only as a cold smile. It doesn't matter, is what I told a poet, a former camper, when we ran into each other in the Old Colony bar on Commercial Street. It did me more good than harm, by a lot. I don't want to ask Mr. C., who I hear has remarried and mellowed and does good works in Nevada. I want to ask Charley and Jim, but only because I want to see them and know that they are in the world. Only because I want to see Jim, whatever his face, whoever he is. I want to see his blue eyes and the small sun lines around them, and see it all, caught like a bit of leaf in amber, still just as it was.
Amy Bloom, a National Book Award finalist, is the author of Love Invents Us and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.