by Mike Dressel
Gabe disappeared. When we were swimming at night, when we were skinny-dipping. He was presumed drowned. The incident couldn’t have been my fault, I mean we hadn’t made that sort of pact. Still, it was a vanishing act that obsessed me, that I kept in my back pocket for too many years after. He left me with that.
Gabe, he had lived in the modern, tony section of town, in a gated subdivision called Whispering Palms. I lived in a small clapboard house on the opposite side of the sprawl of new development. The casting breakdown might have read something like this; me: braces, mousey brown hair, chubby cheeks. Short for my age. Unathletic. A boy who carefully laid out his clothes for the next school day, a boy with two younger sisters and a dad temporarily out of work. Whereas, Gabe: a tangle of red curls, a dusting of freckles. Lean and sinewy, green eyes. Rumpled polo shirts retrieved from the floor and tossed on before school. A dynamo on the soccer field. An only child with a mother who was president of the Junior League for a four years running and whose father worked in finance. Blessed, it seemed.
We weren’t friends at first, but we weren’t not friends, in the way we co-existed in our weekly Boy Scout meetings and outside of them, in the savage adolescent ecosystem of Lakeside Middle School. Gabe was a year older, but wasn’t too cliquish. He had invited me to his birthday at the end of the last school year, a pool party. His mother, her hair dyed a perfect shade of honey blonde, served finger sandwiches and plastic cups of lemonade instead of the usual fare of hotdogs and grocery store-brand cola. I noticed the way the Gabe’s short black swim trunks clung to his crotch as he gripped the diving board to do pull ups out of the water. The sight made me queasy.
Preparations were being made for our monthly camping trip. Troop 313 held its meetings in an old Presbyterian church that always smelled like mothballs and lemon floor polish. Gabe usually shared a tent with Scott S. and Scott B., the Scotts as they were collectively known, but Scott S. was going to visit his father in Tennessee and Scott B. was grounded for spraypainting his neighbor’s driveway. Neither of us wanted to be paired up with any of the oldest troop members, the seventeen-year-olds, Eagle Scouts with barky voices and blotchy skin and drivers licenses. They belonged to a different caste entirely. Helping the quartermaster take inventory of camping supplies in the cobwebby wooden shed adjacent to the playground, counting out the tarps and tents and enamel cookware, we hastily agreed to bunk together. “Do you wanna share a tent?” “Sure.” It was as matter-of-fact as that.
We set up the dome tent (Gabe’s, newer and more expansive than the hand-me-down I usually used) in the tall grass of the large wooded park before we had to perform our assigned duties: Gabe had KP, I was on the team charged with digging our latrine. We hadn’t spent much time together just the two of us and I found myself nervous around him: jangly and mumbly and prone to fits of awkward silence. I kept my hands balled up at my sides. I was unable to maintain eye contact. Inside the tent I unrolled my sleeping bag and then clapped the heels of my hiking boots together outside the door to shake off the dirt while Gabe lounged and flipped slowly through the pages of a music magazine.
There was, as always on these trips, the constant contending with both exhibitionism and embarrassment. Those like me, shy, pale, and razor thin, had perfected the art of putting on our underwear while in our sleeping bag, a cocoon-shimmy of propriety. We didn’t lounge about in a state of undress. We did not shuck our shirts while on hikes in the midday sun. Unavoidable were the awful communal shower times–enforced for the sake of hygiene–all of us naked and awkward in various stages of development, lined up under the spray of hot water, if there even were hot water. The more confident, outgoing kids snapped towels and horsed around while I contended with the torture of trying to not look at the wisps of armpit or leg hair, or crotches; and then the self-flagellation for failing.
After lights out, I lay in the tent in the dark with Gabe and the sound of cicadas. I heard him sniffling. “What’s wrong” I asked, staring at up at the ceiling. He had a sore throat he claimed, but I remember earlier his hushed conversation with one of the adults. The noises coming from his side of the tent, across the invisible divide,the socially acceptable adolescent boy distance, grew more voluble. I rolled over to face him, clicking on the lantern. He looked both embarrassed and imploring. It was my impulse to scoot closer to him, to reach out and hold his shuddering, freckled shoulders as he choked back tears, to comfort him, but I ignored it. His vulnerability repulsed me.”You should wait here.” I unzipped the tent door and stalked across the field, drops of rain stinging my cheeks, to tell the Scout Master Gabe wasn’t feeling well, and he followed me back to retrieve him. Gabe the Golden Boy, no longer imperturbable to me.
I was felled by his weakness, but more by my inability to insinuate myself, to take advantage of his neediness. I confused companionship with congress. Other boys had done stuff together, I knew. There were magazines, Playboy and Hustler and Cherry, smuggled on trips in backpacks. There were furtive activities, games of truth-or-dare, frottage under sleeping bags, circles to which I wasn’t privy. But this wasn’t the same. I was sure I cared.
After that incident, I decided to be more confident, in my way. I took to seeking him out in the halls of the middle school. I made a point of trying to talk to him by his locker, parking my violin case there. I performed a semblance of arcane rituals in my adolescent bedroom. I wasn’t even sure the precise spell I was trying to cast, but I knew I wanted to feel not so alone. This in addition to the vigorous magic practiced by most boys late evenings beneath their sheets. I tried to bind him to me.
I was aware that something in him seemed broken, he seemed to retreat, shrink, gradually something had turned in him. A chemical transformation, or imbalance. I felt a kinship in his pain, two notes struck in harmony. I wouldn’t realize how wrong I was until later, how I’d mislocated the ache. I thought I’d made this come to fruition, a product of my will.
His stock had fallen, socially. He became more aloof, less jocular. He was starting to be ignored in the halls, left alone by his locker. The weakness wafted off him and those more popular could smell a change, like a pack of animals shunning a diseased member. He stopped spending time with the Scotts. I went to his house more often to hang out. His mother was icily pleasant when greeting me at the door, and we spent hours riding our skate boards or bikes around the cul-de-sac. I loaned him my X-Men comic books and encouraged him to watch “Doctor Who” on PBS; in return I pretended to be interested in tossing the Nerf football back and forth, or exchanging volleys on the tennis court. It was a small sacrifice, even though I was self-conscious, being left-handed, and kept missing each serve. He sat diligently in his bedroom as I showed him the magic tricks I was working on, the sleight-of-hand—this sweaty-palmed glamouring, the palest of spell casting, done solely to enamor him. Electrified by his merest attention, the hairs on my arms stood up and my peripheral vision grew hazy. I thought I’d discovered a way to keep him smiling, or at least interested.
“Are you ever sad? Like really sad?” Gabe asked on one of those rainy, magic trick afternoons.
I swallowed, not quite understanding. “Do you want to see me make my scarf disappear,” I said.
“Sure. Is it really that easy to make things go away?” he asked, his head turned toward the window.
Then one time after school I tried to make plans to hang out but he said no, he had to go to the doctor. “Are you sick,” I asked, being a squirmy hypochondriac even at that age.
“It’s not that kind of doctor,” he said, tossing his book bag over his shoulder and loping away.
Three months later I shared a tent with Gabe again. That conclusion was by now foregone. His sadness was more hidden but it hadn’t abated. We’d talked about it, in circuitous ways, prompted by a strange afternoon at his house. Gabe proclaimed we were going to be blood brothers. Standing in his driveway, by his basketball hoop, he produced his Swiss Army knife from his pocket and drew the blade across the meat of his palm. I tried to follow his example, but chickened out, barely making a scratch. Something like disdain flickered across Gabe’s face before we exchanged a bloody handshake.
“You probably won’t follow me,” he said.
“I will,” I replied, unsure of what he meant. “I will follow you.”
We had fifteen minutes until the van–a grey Econoline model someone had dubbed The Whale–departed, and we wandered across the road to the convenience store to buy snacks for the trip. Gabe was mostly silent. The heat reflected off the black asphalt in shimmery waves. There was something determined in his countenance. During the long ride, sitting a bit exiled, up close to the scoutmaster, dozy as our sweaty thighs stuck to the vinyl seats, he shared his Discman with me, as we were lulled into rhythmic highway sleep. We split a bag of Gummy Worms and listened to The Beastie Boys then to Tom Petty. Gabe dozed off and I played the Tom Petty CD again. I was not particularly savvy about music, but I liked the one I knew from the radio, where he sang about bad boys standing in the shadows and leaving this world for awhile.
Whose idea was it to go? Mostly us younger Scouts, aged between 11 and 14. Who was to be told and who was to be left out was executed in a complicated system of signals and evasions. I had been hanging out in Keith’s tent. Keith was small, two years younger than most of the boys, with a nose like a turnip and only one testicle, willing to accept any dare, his eyes black and defiant, ready to bare brunt of any humiliation. I feigned sleepiness, and then waited to met up with the others. The Scotts thought the idea was juvenile, but promised not to tell.
After a languor had settled over the campground, and the interior illumination of most tents had extinguished, we assembled by the dwindling embers of the fire pit before setting out. We marched single file down the wormy trail with only two flashlights, one in the front and one in the rear. They were unnecessary. The stars were fulsome, and a husky, orange moon hung low in the sky. The only cloud a black swarm of mosquitoes. There were some murmurings of hesitancy on the path, but what was the worst that could happen? We had merit badges for First Aid and for archery. We could navigate with a compass, we could set a broken limb with a splint and suck poison from a snake bite if need be.
The air was pillowy, damp, charged. Gabe walked to my right. “Tonight’s as good a night as any,” he mumbled. I thought he meant for a swim, for an adventure. Palmetto bushes rustled, and an armadillo charged past on the path eliciting gasps and panic, then laughter. We reached the little inlet in less than twenty minutes. The sand felt gooey between our toes. We ran around giddy, whiffing clods of clumpy matter at each other’s heads. High on our shared illicit adventure.
Tyler, husky and loud, whirled his white briefs over his head, helicopter-style. He was the first to plunge naked into the water. Gabe, who’d been eerily silent, followed, performed an awkward, jerky dance as he shucked off his trunks at the water’s edge, kicking them backwards off his heel, revealing the white globes of his butt. He continued to swim out farther, farther. Why, or who made him, was it a dare or a boast? Either way I lost sight of him. I had wanted to follow, still decked in my bulky red board shorts, but I stuck close to the shore.
Kevin yelped when something touched his foot under the surface. Tate tried to dunk everyone under the water. I finally shimmied off my bathing suit, but well under the cover of darkness, beneath the surface of the water. Feeling accepted. A sense of naughty freedom.
It wasn’t until we were gathering up our stuff, shaking sand out of our suits and brushing grains from our legs, that we noticed. Someone spoke up, “where’s Gabe?” Maybe it was tubby Mason, who sat on the sand hugging his knees to his chest for most of the outing.
Fear spreading in ripples. Someone called Gabe’s name, others went splashing into the water. Was it a practical joke? But he didn’t emerge. It was a vanishing act, better than any magic I’d perfected. We waited. We argued over what to do. Maybe he already went back, someone said. Without saying anything, one of the other kids countered.
I wandered down to the water’s edge and I picked up his discarded swimming trunks, holding them up to the group. We made the trek back to wake the adults, to inform them what had happened.
Our sickly panic paled to the controlled chaos that erupted once we’d returned to the campsite. Boys were split up, some to take the scout leader back to the shore, others to search the area surrounding the camp. “Who’s bunking with him,” a grown-up asked. I meekly raised my hand. “Check your campsite. Check to see if there’s any sign he came back.”
I did as ordered, but of course he hadn’t. I surveyed his side of the tent, the clothes hanging haphazardly out of his pack, his CDs, a crumpled sock: a wanton discharge of personal effects. I couldn’t help but thinking his disappearance was punishment for my longing. As the flashlights arced through the air, piercing the nylon womb of the tent, and the sounds of muffled voices and feet clomping on the soft earth, a thrum of anxiety rippled through the campsite. I lay down on Gabe’s sleeping bag, realizing I was still clutching his black bathing suit like a talisman, and shut my eyes, at a loss for anything like authentic magic to call him back.
Mike Dressel is a writer and educator. His work has appeared in Metazen, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Promethean, and Chelsea Station, among other places. He is an adjunct lecturer at The City College of New York and the recipient of the 2013 Norman Levine Outstanding Teaching Award. He is also 1/3 of the creative team behind the nonfiction reading series No, YOU Tell It! (www.noyoutellit.com) Twitter: @mikedressel.