I had never seen anyone in real life in a bathing suit like that before. I stared at the man lying in front of me wondering how he had the nerve to wear something so small. I wondered if the police would arrest him. I wondered if he wasn't worried that everyone would know that he was a homosexual. After all, this wasn't Europe. Any man wearing a bathing suit that revealing had to be a fairy. I knew that. I had heard it from everyone I knew. I had seen it in those men’s "physique" magazines I bought at newsstands in Philadelphia. The same magazines I would sneak into the house, so that I could masturbate with the men of my dreams. I only imagined that I would ever meet men like that and now here, lying in front of me, was one. I was sure. It was his well formed body, but mostly, it was his skimpy black bathing suit.
It was Honolulu, a beach near Waikiki, the summer of 1967. 1 was a junior counselor on a traveling camp, and this was the summer job I had arranged for myself the previous fall. I thought I had been so smart getting this job early in the year. Through the winter I dreamed of lying on the beach in Hawaii, as far away from home and school as I could imagine. The last days of school that year had been filled with the excitement of the war news from the Middle East. Everyone in my dorm watched the progress of the Six. Day War on television, much the same as we watched football when Penn State played an away game. The victory of the Israeli Army had awakened a sense of pride and belonging in every Jewish person I knew. 'Mere had been rallies, and demonstrations in support of Israel. People who hardly seemed to have any ties before to being Jewish were now proclaiming their Jewishness at every turn. I also felt a similar sense of awakening, even giddiness, after long years of prep school, where I had been the minority student. I had learned to keep quiet about my background. Now, it seemed that there was a national awakening for Jews.
Many of my friends were arranging to spend the summer in Israel. A friend Jake, from Philadelphia, talked about volunteering on a kibbutz, perhaps even making aliyah. I knew aliyah only as a term used in synagogue for being called upon to read from the Torah. Now it took on a whole new meaning. It literally meant to ascend, and carried with it aspects of transformation, of moving to a higher plane. I learned that it was a term used when a Jew immigrated to Israel. I was certainly enticed, longing for something that would have just those aspects of transformation that aliyah promised. I was also confused by my secret identity, which I was certain would make me as unacceptable in Israel as I believed myself to be in the United States. I had never met another Jewish homosexual before, and although I kept telling myself that I couldn't be the only one, I really wasn't sure. I wanted to go and feel some sense of belonging, but in my confusion, I stayed with my obligation to travel west.
A few weeks later, I left Philadelphia with a group of teenage boys, and three older counselors. We drove across the country, camping out every night, visiting national parks, hiking, and then flying to Hawaii. We sang every song from “Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “All You Need Is Love, All You Need Is Love.” I realized shortly after we left, that I had little in common with the older counselors, and I certainly wasn't going to have any lasting friendships with the kids. So I played a kind of middle ground, having the authority of an adult, but feeling as if I was really a camper. I tried to reveal little about my personal life, but teenage boys take almost every word as sexual innuendo, so it was impossible to be totally free of their imaginations and good-natured teasing. I guarded my real sexual desires, and aside from the constant joking of who was a homo, or not, I doubt that anyone suspected me.
Throughout the trip, I felt restless. My thoughts and desires enticed and troubled me, and I wanted someone with whom I could talk. I tried to forget about myself. I kept listening to news accounts of the Middle East. The war had been over quickly, but the debates in the U.N. raged on, and so, through the car radio I felt some kind of attachment to something outside of camp. In Disneyland, where I always wanted to go as a child, but never got any closer than a postcard, I spent my twentieth birthday. I found myself enjoying it more through the eyes of the boys, and spent most of the time walking around looking at other tourists. Lacking other companions, I decided to buy myself a birthday dinner, and asked a few of my favorite kids to join me.
When we got to Hawaii all hell broke loose. A rowdy group of prep school boys turned into an uncontrollable mob. Girls! Bikinis! Surfboards! Suntans! Grass skirts! Hulas dancers! And leis! Trying to control them in any manner was a nightmare. I begged the director for a day off and when the time came I got away from the group without so much as a "see ya later." I didn't know what I was going to do. Just sit, or find an adventure, read my mail and go on from there.
There had been a packet of letters waiting for us when we got to Hawaii. Getting mail while traveling is always wonderful, but receiving it there, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, seemed truly miraculous. I had a birthday card, as usual signed by my mother for everyone in the family, and a letter from my friend Jake. It was postmarked Tel Aviv, and I put off reading it until I was alone. His letter rambled on about the spirit of the country, the shit work he had been doing on kibbutz, how different everything was, but mostly, how incredible it was to be in a place where everyone was Jewish. In Israel he felt totally free. And of course, there was one more thing. He had met a girl, a Jewish girl. And they did it. They were having sex. As a matter of fact, they had sex regularly. I knew from our talks in the dorm that this certainly wasn't the first girl he ever slept with, but this time it sounded like love. Since she was in the army, she had her own room on kibbutz. Much to his amazement, everyone on the kibbutz knew they slept together, but no one seemed to care. Not even her parents!
I folded Jake's letter and stuck it in my pocket. I walked along the beach for a little while, wondering mostly what Jake looked like lying naked in bed. I had never allowed myself the opportunity even to think that I was attracted to him, but out here on a beach in Hawaii, where I knew absolutely no one, where I wasn't afraid someone would come along and read my mind, I let my imagination go free. I wondered what was I doing with a group of silly teenage boys, when what I really wanted, was to be with a group of men like myself. But I didn't know if they existed, or where to find them. What was I doing here, in the middle of nowhere. Like my day off, my life seemed aimless. There was too much to think about. The sun felt good, and I was relieved to be away from camp. I remembered that the drinking age in Hawaii was twenty, so I decided that if I did nothing else that day, I would take myself for my first legal drink. I hadn't expected any adventure beyond that. And then I came upon the man in the bathing suit.
I stood and stared at him lying there. My head started shaking from side to side slowly, as if I was saying, no, no, no. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a miracle. My hands began trembling, and I couldn't stop them. I crunched my eyebrows together, reminding myself to be serious, not think about these things. But nothing worked. I couldn't suppress the pounding in my chest, or the throb in my pants. I tried to walk forward, but I was stuck in the sand. My arm seemed to want to reach out and caress him, but I couldn't move it. I was stiff. Then he turned his head, and looked right at me. I was too mesmerized to look away. My knees buckled under me, and I plopped down in the sand.
He started talking, as if he had been expecting me. He took out a pack of cigarettes, and asked me if I had a match. At first, I couldn't say a thing. My mouth had gone dry and my jaws wouldn't move. I didn't have a match. I didn't smoke. I had read that this was some sort of code between homosexuals, and I wasn't sure if I wanted him to know that I knew it. I wanted him to get the message that I might know the code, but that it didn't necessarily mean I was a queer, but I did want him to know that I honestly and truly didn't have a match. I apologized for not having a match. I apologized for not smoking. I apologized for almost everything. Wearing long pants on the beach. Being from the East Coast. Not having a tan. Only being twenty. But what I really wanted to apologize for was being so naive, for feeling so stupid, for not knowing what to do next. I wanted to touch his body, but I didn't dare. I wanted to feel the excitement of making love for the first time. I wanted to feel free of the fear I had of being myself. I stumbled over everything I said. Our conversation had long lapses of silence and progressed little, but being twenty helped. He offered to buy me my birthday drink.
I knew that if I said yes, it meant more than just a drink. Neither one of us was kidding the other, and in an instant I agreed. As we walked over to his car, he asked me if I wanted to stop by his apartment to wash up first. I didn't know. I thought I was supposed to know. Once I had made the decision to go with him, I was completely helpless. I had no way of controlling the events. I didn't know what to do next, and I really didn't care. I wanted someone to show me what to do, and tell me what to say. But since there weren't any guide books or teachers around, I was just going to let it happen. I tried to act nonchalant, but I don't think I fooled him, and I was too nervous to fool myself.
In the car we finally introduced ourselves. I was certain he had lied. I immediately regretted telling him my name. Now my parents would know. The police would know. What if he wasn't queer?! What if I had read this all wrong, and he was going to mug me and beat me up. He was merely baiting me. Maybe he was one of those guys who had sex with boys and murdered them. But if I had any doubts about his sexuality, they were erased when I entered his apartment. It was casually decorated, nothing outstanding, but on a comer table was a small replica of the David, the classic decorator item of the homosexual.
Without a word, he took off his bathing suit and hopped in the shower. I merely stood there and tried not to look. What was I going to do now? Scream, run, take off my clothes, call home to let them know where I was? I wandered over to the balcony to see the ocean, and in a few minutes he walked over and presented me with my birthday drink. I was trembling so much, that I couldn't hold the glass. This was a moment I had looked forward to for years. One I thought impossible. One I feared because I knew I could never return to the way I was before. I could no longer go on lying to myself He held my hand, led me back inside, and kissed me. He was completely naked. As he held me, I relaxed completely. I felt years of worrying, years of hiding, years of denial slipping away. He held me very tightly, and said some very kind words. I kissed him back and told him I had never done this before. Somehow, he knew it.
We made love the entire afternoon. I never felt so naked before, or since. Or so completely safe. He didn't seem to mind my awkwardness, and in time I stopped apologizing for it. We traded stories about our lives, and I was amazed by everything he told me. I must have asked him a hundred stupid questions, and at first, I didn't believe a word he said. His life seemed so completely ordinary, far from exotic. He didn't seem maladjusted or effeminate. He owned a house, and shared this vacation apartment with a few friends. After high school, college, and a stint in the Navy, he settled in California. He worked as a mechanical engineer, not as the male model I expected. I think he found my disbelief unsettling, and showed me his driver's license and some other pictures to prove the story.
When I left him and re-entered the world, I began to feel unsettled. I was certain that anyone who saw me leave the apartment building knew why I had been there. I had to cover my tracks, make up for the time I had spent in disappearance. Someone would want to know where I had been, how I had spent my day. What did I have to show for it. I raced down the street. I wanted to get away as fast as I could, make up for lost time. I ducked into a souvenir store,. and bought gifts. I wavered back and forth from feeling proud and lusty, to feeling ashamed. I bought a bunch of post cards, and sent them to brothers, friends, and relatives. Evidence that I had been a tourist. It was as if I had just pulled off a crime, and gotten away with it. I laughed to myself, but who wanted to feel like a criminal for doing something so natural. I still had no one I could talk to. I wasn't about to write to Jake and say I had sex with another man, that it had been the most wonderful experience of my life. 'Mat at least for an afternoon, I had secretly found my place on earth. But I certainly never expected to have it celebrated. No, this had been an apparition, and I had better store it away, and forget about it.
When I got back to the camp I was surprised to find that we were leaving for another location early the next morning. We had planned to be here for another day. The only other time we changed plans was due to rain, and that was certainly not the case now. Something was wrong, and I had a momentary attack of fear that someone had followed me. There were no wisecracks between the boys. They were just hanging around. A few of the guys gave me a halfhearted hello. No one was interested in me or my day off. At first I was glad for the silence, and headed for my tent. They had eaten dinner early, and the cleaning up was almost over. I thought we would have some kind of campfire, but nothing was planned at all. After a little while, one of the senior counselors came over and asked to speak to me alone. I became apprehensive, and expected some kind of confrontation. By now, I had interpreted everyone's silence and disinterest in my day as ostracism.
As we walked away from the campsite, I looked around and saw that almost everyone of the campers was watching us. I was convinced they all knew what I had done that day. I actually was on the verge of tears and confessing, when he told me that one of the other counselors had been caught fondling the youngest kid on the trip. A twelve year old. It had been going on since we left California, and the kid finally broke down and told someone else. I stood there in disbelief. I asked him to repeat the whole story again, and finally it sank into me that I had not been caught, was not being accused, was not going to have to confess anything. I even started to laugh.
When my emotions caught up with the reality, my reaction turned from disbelief to confusion. What in the hell was going on here? And what were we going to do? What was going to happen to us? Would the police come? Did we need to notify the boy's parents? Would we keep quiet? Was the trip going to end? Would we fly straight back to Philadelphia? What about the counselor? I was angry at him for doing such a stupid thing. Couldn't he control himself? And what about the little kid!?
Some of the boys wanted to talk to me about the incident, but I had no answers. They were quick to condemn the counselor for being a queer and a fag. They claimed that they should have known about him, seen the signs that he was a pervert. I listened for awhile. I couldn't say too much. I found my mind drifting back to the afternoon when I thought my life had opened up in some mysterious way, and now it seemed it was about to slam shut again. I heard the accusations of the boys, and felt that they could have been directed at me. I wondered if I was like the offending counselor. I wanted to ask him if this is what the future held for me. I wanted to help the little boy, but I doubted myself now. Could I trust myself in his company? Were all of us perverts the same?
The other counselors and I listened to the kids' gripes and accusations for a little longer, then decided it was getting us nowhere. By now, they had put both the camper and the counselor on trial verbally, and found both of them guilty. In their eyes, they were both fags. I had nothing to base my opinions on except my own, limited experience, and I cautioned everyone not to be so quick with judgments. I told them I didn't think that all homosexuals were like that, and I wasn't sure that the other counselor was a homosexual at all that we couldn't be sure that the other counselor was a homosexual at all. I felt on shaky ground with this kind of advice, but I had to say something to quiet the mood. And to placate my own fears. Finally just to put the day to rest, we called lights out and put everyone to bed early.
I laid in my tent for awhile. Unable to fall asleep, I got up and sat looking out at the ocean. I was completely confused by the events of the day. I tried to think what they all meant for me, but I couldn't make any sense out of it. I remembered how completely at ease I felt with the man I met that afternoon, and remembered the softness of his lips against mine. I wanted to be back at his apartment naked together. I wondered if I could walk away from camp. Just get up and leave. I thought I had already taken the biggest risk of my life that afternoon. Was it completely irresponsible, completely crazy to do this. It wasn't that late, and-I figured, what the hell. After all, some character had been fondling a little kid, and I was worried about sneaking out of camp for the night?
I got up and walked out to the road. I hitched a ride back to Honolulu, and found my to my friend's apartment. I thought of turning back a dozen times. What if he wasn't at home? What if he was there with some other man? I climbed the stairs to the apartment and saw that the lights were off, but I knocked anyway. A light went on and the door opened. He was pretty surprised to see me and we both just looked at each other for a few seconds. He was dressed now. No skimpy bathing suit. He said that he had been sitting out on the balcony by himself, and to my relief, he asked me to come in. When I entered this time, I was too preoccupied to notice a statue of the David, or any other coded images. Instead, I stood there and told him how wonderful it had been to be with him, then blurted out the story of the camp. Stammering, scaring myself by what I was about to request, I asked if I could stay and sleep with him for the night. He said yes. 11 reached out and started crying. The sobs came from somewhere inside my belly and it seemed I wasn't going to stop. He held me until they did, then we both undressed and got into bed. I hoped that he would give me a ride back to the camp before dawn.