By Scott Nadelson
Featured art: Disturbed by Henry Keller
The summer I should have hit puberty but didn’t, I went to a Jewish sleep-away camp in the Poconos. It was an uncomfortable summer for me, full of insecurities, and not only because of my slow physical development. Most of the kids in camp came from Westchester and Long Island, and even if their families weren’t much wealthier than mine—we were solidly upper-middle-class—they showed off their wealth in ways that mine never did. Their parents dropped them off in Mercedes, BMWs, even the occasional Ferrari. Around their necks they wore 24-karat gold Chais and Stars of David. They were obsessed with brand-name clothing—Guess, Polo, Benetton. They talked about vacation homes on Nantucket, Cape Cod, Hilton Head. They had rolls of cash to spend at the camp store, which sold shampoo, toothpaste, soda, and candy.
Now, of course, I can see that such displays of wealth were signs of insecurity in their own right. These parents were the tacky rich, desperate to prove how high they’d climbed, and their children were spoiled and snobbish, nothing to envy. And how rich were they really if they had to ship their kids off for eight weeks of every summer to a camp subsidized by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association?
At the time, though, I was newly ashamed of the off-brand clothing my mother bought me on excursions to the Secaucus outlet malls, shirts with little giraffes and poodles embroidered on the chest instead of alligators or men on horseback. I was ashamed, too, of the decade-old Plymouth Valiant my father refused to give up and, worse, whose passenger door he refused to repair after denting it on a lamppost while backing out of a parking lot. “It still opens, doesn’t it?” he’d say. They were both children of working-class families and cautious by nature, and frugality was a value they tried to instill in me early. But when they dropped me off at camp, and my father handed me a twenty-dollar bill that was supposed to last until they picked me up in August, I thought only, Cheapskates. I couldn’t wait for them to take the Valiant away, praying that no one had seen me open its dented door.
Being invisible was the fantasy I indulged most consistently at thirteen.
The two kids I remember best from that summer, strangely enough, were both named Lance, and both were the sons of doctors. Lance Berman was a tall, charming kid with a surf haircut and a sadistic streak, who had no respect for authority and no fear of consequences. He was late to every morning reveille and every Friday night service, usually because he had a hard time deciding what to wear. He’d stand in front of his cubby for forty-five minutes, pulling out one designer shirt after another, utterly deaf to our counselor’s admonishments. He’d spend another half hour in front of the mirror, arranging his bleached curls with a wet brush and pick, dabbing cologne on his neck, under his arms, in a streak down his belly that ended just inside his shorts.
And as far as I could tell, his vanity paid off. Every few days he had a new girlfriend, with whom he’d rendezvous late at night, sneaking out of the bunk as soon as he heard our counselor’s first snore. Most couples found secluded spots around the lake, but Berman always took his girls through the woods on the far side of the baseball diamond, to a clearing known as Devil’s Meadow, because some kid had spray-painted the number six on the trunks of three trees at its edge. “Jewish girls go wild for Satan,” he’d say the next morning, showing off purple hickeys on his neck, bragging about his fourth handjob of the summer. One of the other boys would say, “Doesn’t count if you shove her hand down your pants,” and Berman would answer, “It does if she keeps it there.” Aside from girls and clothes, what interested Berman above all was contraband. At the bottom of his trunk he’d squirreled away two stale packs of Winstons, a pint of peach schnapps, and four knives—one Swiss Army, one Bowie, one butterfly, and one Rambo-style survival, with built-in flint and fish scaler. He also had half a dozen butane lighters, which he’d pull out those nights he didn’t go to Devil’s Meadow. He’d lead a few of us to the middle of the soccer field, build a little teepee out of twigs, with driedleaves in its center, set it blazing, and tear back to the bunk. At morning reveille, the camp direc- tor asked anyone with information about the mysterious fires to step forward. It was only a matter of time before he found out who was behind them; the longer it took, the steeper the punishment. A kid from another bunk raised his hand. “I know who it is,” he said, and everyone went quiet. A few of us snuck furtive glances at Berman, whose face was impassive, even amused. “Jason,” the kid went on. “You know, from Friday the 13th? He’s going to kill us all.”
To be friends with Berman meant high adventure and constant risk, but the risk was greater if he didn’t like you. At Friday night services he’d sit behind a girl who hadn’t sparked to his advances and flick his lighter a few times, leaving burn marks in a hundred-dollar Benetton sweater. When he heard that some boy from another bunk had bad-mouthed him, he showed up in the middle of the night with his butterfly knife, waking the kid with a gentle poke on the cheek. “Pissed himself in two seconds,” he bragged the next day. Others he’d pick on for no reason, except that he didn’t like the look of their nose or teeth or bowed legs, and then he’d hound them relentlessly, making up dozens of nicknames, each more derogatory than the last—Pizza-face, Zit-face, Volcano-face, Puss-face, Diaper-rash-face—until they made the mistake of trying to fight him, or else wisely avoided him, taking the long way around to the cafeteria and swimming pool.
I should have been an easy target for him, hairless as I was, small and quiet, with cheap, ill-fitting clothes, but for some reason he left me alone. Maybe it was because I liked the thrill of danger, though I was never one to instigate it myself, happily joining in with lighting fires on the soccer field and throwing mounds of skunk cabbage through the window of a rival bunk. Or maybe it was because I covered for him early in the summer, when our counselor came in late from a rendezvous of his own—he was British, and the female counselors loved his accent and, I guessed, his uncircumcised dick—and found Berman’s bed empty. “He’s out looking for you,” I said, and made up a story about how Berman had heard the director walking around outside and wanted to make sure our counselor didn’t get into trouble.
Whatever the reason, he soon treated me like a little brother, or a mascot, even though my birthday was three weeks ahead of his. He called me Baby Nadel. He gave me advice about girls—“They always want to go farther than they say they do”—though I couldn’t bring myself to talk to any, much less make arrangements to meet them in the woods. Before the first all-camp dance, he gestured at my Fruit of the Loom crewneck and said, “You’ll never get any action in that.” Then he handed me a collared Polo that came down almost to my knees. Lance Engelberg’s parents must have spent just as much money as Berman’s did on their son’s clothes, but Engelberg wore only camouflage. Camouflage shorts, camouflage T-shirts, camouflage hunting cap. He had a buzz cut, thick glasses, pasty skin. He was chubby. His voice was high-pitched and nasal. On the first day of camp he stayed on our counselor’s heels, rummaging through his backpack, saying things like, “Got my mess kit, my bug spray, my compass, my magnifying glass. If I get lost in the woods, I can survive till winter.” He was completely oblivious to the snickering around him, and also to our counselor’s smirk, which slipped into a look of disgust when he turned and bumped into Engelberg for the third time in an hour.
That night, as soon as our counselor turned out the lights and slipped away, there was a sound—whump!—followed by Engelberg’s nasal cry: “Who threw that? Whose shoe is this?” Then another whump! and Engelberg shouting, “You guys are asking for trouble. You don’t know who you’re messing with.” Whump! whump! whump! The barrage lasted for a few minutes, the sound of leather slapping skin soon lost beneath Engelberg’s howling. I should have felt sorry for him, but mostly I was grateful that the shoes weren’t flying at me. In the morning our counselor scolded us for the mess, and Engelberg turned away as we gathered our scattered shoes. I’m not proud of it, but one of them was mine—a rubber flip-flop that couldn’t have done much damage, other than add to Engelberg’s humiliation. When Berman saw me retrieve it, he gave a smile and wink, wiping away whatever shame I might have felt, whatever regret.
Engelberg’s torment was only beginning. We hid his hunting cap, broke his compass, threw his mess kit into the lake. Berman was particularly hard on him. He was offended that they shared a name, afraid, maybe, that someone would associate them together, though no one called Engelberg Lance. To everyone except our counselor, who called him Mr. E. (he called all of us by our last initial, and we all envied Judah Zelinsky: Mr. Zed), he was Engelbutt. Almost every day Berman dumped the clothes out of his cubby and then yelled at him for being a slob. When the pool lifeguard wasn’t looking, he held Engelberg underwater until his arms began to thrash, and then let him up just long enough to cough and heave a new breath before plunging him back down. One night, when Berman came back from Devil’s Meadow, he pounced on Engelberg in bed, pinning his arms with his knees, and held his fingers under Engelberg’s nose. “You want some action, Engelbutt? You want to smell some pussy?” Engelberg bucked and flailed but couldn’t dislodge him. “Smell the pussy,” Berman whispered. By then the rest of us had gathered around, and we all began to chant, “Smell the pussy, smell the pussy!” Engelberg howled, “I don’t want to smell the pussy!” and soon he was crying, his nose so clogged that he most likely couldn’t have smelled anything, even with Berman’s fingers halfway up his nostrils.
Now, imagining myself standing at the edge of that circle, chanting softly, I can only shake my head. You don’t have to do this, I want to call out to that scared, skinny kid in ugly clothes. This isn’t really you. At the time, though, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stand up for Engelberg, to tell Berman to leave him alone, or even to stay in bed, in silent protest. I didn’t see myself as someone who had the luxury to speak his mind, to voice judgments about right and wrong, not when Berman’s fingers could just as easily have been up my own nose. That was something left to adults, or at least to kids with hair between their legs, and any time I found myself growing uneasy over Engelberg’s treatment, I told myself he had plenty of other people he could turn to.
To my surprise, though, Engelberg never once reported his sufferings to our counselor or to the camp director. He didn’t ask to move bunks or call his parents to take him home. He didn’t quit talking about his mess kit and compass or telling us we didn’t know who we were messing with. He took his punishments and quickly seemed to forget about them, walking around in a haze of obliviousness that cleared only the next time Berman tried to drown him. And every time, he was equally astonished to find the world so cruel, indignant to discover that the rest of us enjoyed watching his torture, and his tears always seemed to carry more disappointment than pain, anger, or embarrassment. I wanted to shake him, to tell him he could avoid all this if he’d just put his head down, as I did, to sink inside himself and make himself as little noticed as possible. At the same time, I couldn’t help but admire his stoicism or stubbornness or stupidity, or whatever it was that kept him from retreating.
He was tougher than any of us expected, more resilient, and he did have genuine survival skills. On an overnight canoe trip on the Delaware River, our counselor forgot to bring matches, and Engelberg got a fire going with his magnifying glass. I hadn’t read Lord of the Flies by then, but now, every time I picture Piggy, I see Engelberg’s buzz cut, his pale, pudgy cheeks, his glasses reflecting flames. We cheered him as we made roasting sticks for our hot dogs and marshmallows. Even Berman clapped him on the back—he could have started the fire himself, but that would have meant having his lighter confiscated afterward—and for the rest of the night, instead of Engelbutt, he called him Daniel Boonedick. At first I tried to keep my distance from Engelberg, for fear that I’d suddenly find myself within his sphere of suffering, but if we ever happened to be alone together, he’d confide in me, as if he recognized a fellow victim of circumstance. “That wasn’t pussy, you know,” he said once, out of the blue, when we stood on the lakeshore waiting for the rest of the bunk to come in from sailing lessons. He skipped a stone across the water, eight or nine hops before it slipped under. “He stuck his finger up his own ass.” I must have given a look he took as skeptical, because he went on, “What? You don’t think I know what pussy smells like? I got a girlfriend back home.” I didn’t say anything— not because I doubted him, but because I was feeling sorry for myself, worried that I’d never make it to puberty, that I’d stay a hairless little boy forever. But then Engelberg shrugged. “Okay. Maybe I don’t have a girlfriend. But I got sisters.”
It turned out that he was as obsessed with girls as Berman was, but he said he wouldn’t waste his time on flat-chested Jewish thirteen-year-olds. He was in love with a movie actress, Kim Cattrall, who’d recently played a mannequin that came to life at night. “Think about it,” he said. “It would be the greatest thing ever. You could keep her in the closet and suck on her tits whenever you want. Who cares if she’s plastic?”
Another time, he claimed that his neighbor walked naked in front of her window every day, that she knew he watched and liked it. Then he admitted that he didn’t know for sure if she saw him, because he hid behind the curtain and kept his lights out, and only let his eyes peek over the windowsill. And then he admitted that she wasn’t actually naked but in a bathrobe, and he didn’t know if he wanted to see her naked anyway, because she was maybe fifty years old and fat, and he was pretty sure she wore a wig.
He told me that he and his father had built a go-cart together, and then admitted that it wasn’t officially a go-cart because it didn’t have an engine, it was more like a soapbox-derby racer, and actually they hadn’t built it yet but were planning to when he got home from camp, only his father worked all the time and never really did what he said he’d do, and in the end he’d probably just buy him a go-cart because that was easier.
Engelberg never seemed ashamed of the lies, nor of the truths he revealed shortly after. Rather, he seemed content simply to talk, and despite knowing I was supposed to spurn him, I found myself content to listen—that is, until Berman saw us together. Then I’d say, loud, “Later Engelbutt,” knock his hat off his head, and get away from him as quickly as possible.
If I’d been conscious of such things then, I might have seen the Lances as representing two potential paths for me, two modes of living—like something out of Proust, the Berman Way and the Engelberg Way. Berman’s may have been the more appealing, but it was also by far the more challenging. I was neither tall nor charming nor terribly sadistic. I would never have a cubby full of designer clothes or expensive cologne. Whenever I was with him I was nearly sick with anxiety, afraid that he’d turn on me, suddenly decide that I wasn’t worth his time or effort, that he’d get more pleasure from torturing me than from taking me under his wing. But Berman himself radiated anxiety, too. It was always painfully obvious how much he wanted people to think highly of him, or to fear him, and he was constantly glancing around to confirm that all eyes were on him. If I didn’t comment on his newest hickey, he’d point it out to me, making sure I took note of the teeth marks around its edge. I didn’t understand why my approval mattered to him. The idea that he could need something from me I found incomprehensible and somehow troubling.
To be Engelberg, on the other hand, meant taking some blows, but on the whole his was the path of ease. He didn’t worry about what other people thought of him, or even, really, what other people did to him. He lived in the moment, without fear, and as a result he could say what he wanted, wear what he wanted, do what he wanted. He could get interested in hornets or poisonous mushrooms or the healing property of spider webs and talk about it for hours, without worrying that he was boring anyone, that someone might soon strangle him with a vine to shut him up. And he was more relaxing to be around than Berman was. I never had to have my guard up around him, and I found myself avoiding him less and less as the summer went on, allowing those moments we happened to be alone together to stretch out into entire afternoons, when we skipped some activity neither of us could stand—rope course or volleyball—and instead wandered into the woods, where he’d teach me to whittle sticks into spears and talk about a letter he’d written to Kim Cattrall, professing his love and detailing the nasty things he did with her in his dreams—only he hadn’t really written the letter yet, but he was going to as soon as he got home and looked up the address of her agent, but probably he wouldn’t write the letter at all, because she’d never actually get it, and even if she did she’d never write back, and maybe instead he’d just buy himself a mannequin.
I became increasingly aware of the freedom in the Engelberg Way as I drifted in its direction, and I might have chosen it outright if paths stayed separate, if they didn’t take sudden turns and unexpectedly converge. But sometime around the middle of summer, to everyone’s surprise, Engelberg won over Berman and the rest of the bunk with fire. He showed us how to make a flamethrower out of a lighter and bug spray, and we watched in amazement even when he explained, in his tedious, nasal voice, that you had to spray a little extra after the flames went out, or else the fire might get sucked back into the can and make it explode. “You could lose a whole hand,” he said. “I bet none of you guys know how to make a tourniquet.” Then he squirted some bug spray on his arm and touched the lighter to it. Blue flames danced over his pasty flesh. Several of us shrieked, and one kid tried to bat out the fire. But Engelberg just waved his arm until the flame sputtered out. A pink streak showed faintly on his white skin. “Jeez,” he said. “You guys don’t know anything about fire.”
Berman snatched the can from him, made a flame-thrower of his own, and chased Engelberg around the bunk. When he took his finger off the trigger, the flame did indeed suck into the can. “Baby Nadel,” he called. “Catch!” I jumped out of the way, and the can rolled beneath our counselor’s bed. We all tore out of the bunk and took cover in the surrounding trees. I don’t know what we expected—for the roof to blow off, a fireball to rise a thousand feet into the sky? After a few minutes we went back inside. The can had split open along its welded seam, and a gummy mess covered part of the floor. “You guys owe me a new can of bug spray,” Engelberg said. “I need it. I’m allergic to chiggers.”
We all pooled our money—all except me, who had only eight bucks left and was running out of soap—to buy every can of bug spray the camp store carried. And after that, the bunk became an unpredictable, perilous place for everyone. You’d come in to find a pool of liquid flames in the middle of the floor; or sometimes it would be in the middle of your bed, and you had to leap on it and slap it out before it singed your blanket. You’d step out the door, and a three-foot stream of fire would come roaring at you, and then Berman would hoot with laughter when you dropped to the ground and crab-walked away.
But there were also unexpected moments of beauty. One night, Engelberg stood for a good half hour on another kid’s top bunk bed, spraying the ceiling. None of us knew what he was doing, and Berman kept shouting at him, “There’s no chiggers up there, Engelbutt.” But when he flicked the lighter, a pattern of stars and moons spread across the rafters, and all of us, even Berman, were awed into silence. The furiously rippling night sky cast a soft, magical glow over all our faces. None of us cared if the bunk burned to the ground. We watched until the last star winked out and then went to sleep without a word, not a single insult or dirty joke, entirely at peace with each other and the world. What surprised me most, though, what seemed least predictable, was how seamlessly Engelberg integrated into the group, as if all of us had forgotten that he was supposed to be an outcast, as if we hadn’t persecuted him for nearly a month. Everyone still called him Engelbutt, and Berman still dumped his clothes out of his cubby from time to time, but there were no more shoe barrages or attempted drownings or soiled fingers stuck up his nose. In the cafeteria he’d argue with Berman and the others about different brands of skateboards and compare notes about favorite Nintendo games. They’d talk about go-carts and soapbox-derby racers, with the genuine expectation that they’d own one or the other soon after they got home.
What surprised me, in other words, was how much Engelberg and Berman had in common. While they discussed the spoils of being doctors’ sons, I sat silently, eating my Salisbury steak. My parents bought me plenty of things I wanted—which mostly included baseball cards—but all I could focus on now was that I didn’t have skateboards or Nintendo, and that I’d never have a go-cart in a million years. And rather than being envious, I was disdainful. Things came too easily to the Lances. They didn’t have to struggle through the summer with twenty bucks, doling out quarters for Red Vines and using a bar of soap until it disintegrated.For the first time in my life I adopted a sullen, underclass pride, which came with a large dose of sadness: No matter how much Berman and Engelberg vied for my friendship, I’d always be the real outcast among them.
Soon, Engelberg joined Berman’s late-night outings, participating in fire- setting on the soccer field and skunk-cabbage raidson other bunks. It was as if he’d always been there, stifling giggles and giving advice about how to set the blaze—or as if I were the only one who remembered that he hadn’t always been there, that the idea once would have been unthinkable.
But the unthinkable was now the rule. One night, Berman brought Engelberg along to Devil’s Meadow, where he hid among the spray-painted trees while Berman and his newest girlfriend—who, to Berman’s consternation, wouldn’t let him touch anything below her neck—began their nightly struggle. At Berman’s signal, Engelberg came running out of the woods in nothing but shorts, arms outspread, flames dancing from his shoulders to the tips of his fingers. The Devil himself, come to claim the young lovers. The girl ran off shrieking, leaving her shoes behind. The two Lances could hardly breathe from laughing when they made it back to the bunk, both flopping onto Berman’s bed and sputtering, “Did you see—” “Her face! Her face!” “He kept—he kept—” “I—I—” “—kept shouting, ‘Six six six! Six six six!’”
When they finally calmed down, I could see Engelberg wincing when he shifted his weight. Red welts were rising on his arms. “Next time, my hand’s up her shirt like nothing,” Berman said, and snapped his fingers. He leaned back on his pillow, with both hands behind his head, and stretched out his legs. “Get the hell off my bed, Engelbutt.” I was jealous, there’s no denying it. Berman had never asked me to play such a prominent role in his pranks, and even though I knew the whole episode would have been far less frightening for the girl—and funny for us—if I’d been the one on fire, still I felt slighted.
But even more, I was bewildered. Maybe I still am. After all he’d suffered at Berman’s hand, how could Engelberg laugh with him, how could he go along with his practical jokes and act as if he’d never been pounced on in the middle of the night, never had shit-stained fingers shoved up his nose? Did he have no memory? Was he some kind of saint, full of forgiveness? Or had he simply been seduced into the Berman Way, now so desperate for people to like him that he excused all past transgressions against him?
I tried to ask him about it the next time we were alone together, tramping along the lakeshore to a little beach where Engelberg thought we might catch spring peepers. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was probably something along the lines of, “You must still hate Berman’s guts, even though he’s nicer to you now.”
Engelberg gave me a puzzled look and shrugged. “He’s okay.” When I pressed him further, reminding him of the hurled shoes and the near-drownings, he shrugged again and said, “I got an older brother.”
If I’d thought I was strong enough, I would have pushed him into the lake and held his head underwater. I’d never been angrier in my life, or so confused. “He put his finger in his ass and stuck it up your nose,” I said.
He shrugged once more. “I breathed through my mouth.”
It was the least satisfying answer he could have given, but he didn’t offer anything more. Now I have a pretty good idea why it bothered me so much, and even then I had an inkling. His shrugs, if not his words, suggested that whatever pain he’d experienced didn’t matter now that he was free of it. They even seemed to imply that suffering was worthwhile if it brought you to a place of contentment, if you ended up happy, and this, above all, I couldn’t accept. Avoiding pain and humiliation was the primary goal of my waking hours, and even if I wasn’t always successful, I couldn’t imagine approaching life any differently. Wasn’t it better never to be seen at all, rather than to be seen, kicked, and then embraced? One afternoon a few days later, I came into the bunk after swimming lessons to find a masturbating contest in full swing. Four boys were lined up on a bed, arms chugging, faces screwed up—in pleasure or agony, I couldn’t tell—while a fifth knelt in front, squinting, to judge who came first. Berman was one of those on the bed, and so was Engelberg. A magazine lay on the floor in front of them, opened to a picture of Kim Cattrall riding on the back of a motorcycle. I felt something stirring in me, though not in my swim trunks. What would have happened if I’d taken them off and let everyone see what was really there? Would I have felt any less lonely? The Lances didn’t pay me any attention. They were side by side, hands moving in perfect rhythm, mouths open, eyes glazed.
Now, once again, as I picture my younger self standing in that doorway, so small and unassuming, hair tangled with cowlicks, shirt marred with grass stains, I have a terrible urge to call out. Go on, I want to tell him. Get it over with. If you can stop hiding now, you’ll save us so much trouble later on. I can hardly watch as he turns, trunks still on, and walks away.
Another day, soon after, Berman laughed and hooted as Engelberg, arms on fire, flapped through the woods like a phoenix and belly flopped into the lake. Steam rose around him. Berman dove in after, and the two of them swam out to a nearby dock, where they tipped over a canoe full of girls, who squealed and splashed around them.
On the shore, I held the can of bug spray and the lighter. I don’t remember what thoughts went through my mind exactly, but I know that I wished for a different kind of pain than the dull, hollow ache of longing that left no mark on my body, that had no starting point and no end. I gave a few squirts into my palm, flicked the flint, and held the flame an inch away. But that was as close as I could bring it.
Scott Nadelson is the author of a novel, a memoir, and five story collections, most recently The Fourth Corner of the World, which was named a Jewish Fiction Prize Honor Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, and One of Us, winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Short Fiction.
Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011